With a name like American Crime you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ABC show, which just wrapped up its debut 11-episode season, was another in the long line of TV shows about heroic cops nabbing bad guys. They’re popular for good reason – even I, the criminal defense lawyer, am not immune to their pull – but we hardly need another one on TV. Good thing, then, that American Crime isn’t like anything else on TV.
That’s down to its creator, writer/director John Ridley, last seen collecting an Oscar for the screenplay to 12 Years a Slave. Rather than focus on the crime itself and the “solving” of it, the show takes one crime – a murder (nearly a double murder) in a nondescript California town – and shows how it impacts those caught up in its wake. Not only is that the focus, but Ridley showed that he didn’t really care about any traditional resolution to the case at all.
As a result, the focus is on several families dealing with the impact of the crime – the victims’ parents, the sister of the main suspect, the foster family of his heroin addict girlfriend, and the would-be family of the state’s first main witness. Issues of race, class, ethnicity, and gender bubble through the season, spurred by the stress brought on by the murder and its prosecution.
Amongst all these, the most fascinating was the Gutiérrez family. Tony, the younger of two children, unknowingly gets caught up in the fringes of the murder – he lent a car to a guy who was involved, but had no idea of it at the time. At the urging of his father, he cooperates with the police. This leads to him being arrested, charged as an accessory (mostly as leverage, it appears), and sent to juvenile detention. What happens from there is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable – treated like a criminal, like a thug, Tony becomes one, committing his own heinous act once released.
American Crime doesn’t look like anything on TV, either. A lot of the editing and camera work is intentionally disorienting (often we focus on the person being spoken too, rather than the speaker) and keeps you on your toes. Breaking Bad (Which I’m working through now, finally) may have been cinematic, but not like this. The closest precedent I can think of is Homicide: Life On the Street, which introduced TV to the hand held cinema verite style. Given that the technical flair is done in service of a bunch of fantastic performances and American Crime was always a fascinating, if grim, watch.
All that being said, the show’s greatest asset was also its greatest weakness. By stubbornly refusing to deal with the facts of the case itself, it was difficult to fully comprehend why the various parties involved were behaving the way they were behaving. How are we to judge the initial suspect’s reaction to being imprisoned and being turned into a political prop without having some idea whether he actually did it? He knew, after all. The end result is a fascinating exercise, but it rings a little hollow.
Regardless, I know the show didn’t have wonderful ratings, so kudos to ABC renewing it for a second season. With a new case on the horizon and a second chance to tweak the formula, I expect something even better.