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On the surface, ABC’s drama American Crime has all the makings of a monster hit (or as monster as hits get in today’s fractured, niche-driven television landscape). It was created by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. The acting is superb, particularly from principals Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, and Penelope Ann Miller. It’s edited with innovative, ingenious cuts that satisfy FCC regulations while still competing with cable competitors by suggesting profanity and gritty content it doesn’t actually show (though, let me be clear, there’s still plenty of FCC-allowed language and violence here). Perhaps its biggest boon of all is that its lead-in is the immensely popular political soap opera, Scandal.
Yet for all this American Crime has failed to find much of an audience. Ironically, the problem may be that the series is doing too good a job offering a tense and relevant viewing experience.
According to aggregated reviews at Metacritic.com, American Crime is the most critically hailed new show on the air. In some ways, it deserves it. It opens with a sensationalistic crime made for hot-button political haymaking. A young Iraq War veteran and his beauty queen wife are attacked in their home in Modesto, Calif. The husband is killed; the wife is raped and left comatose. The suspects include a black drug addict and illegal Mexican gang members. The case seems cut and dried.
Yet as the show progresses, as with most shocking crimes that make headlines, there is more here than meets the sound bite. The victim, it turns out, is not a one-dimensional patriotic hero. He had problems. His marriage had problems. But this doesn’t change the fact of his murder, as his devastated mother, Barb (Huffman), continues to insist in the press.
Barb is a hard woman to sympathize with. Her hate-crime-for-thee-but-not-for-me rants have some basis in logic and experience, yet we naturally recoil from her bitterness. Her waffling, sad-sack ex-husband Russ (Hutton) is less an overt heretic to PC orthodoxy, but hardly more likable for that.
The bias on the other side of the courtroom is just as fierce. The black defendant’s sister (Regina King) repeatedly raises the specter of rigged justice though there’s no evidence that the police are doing anything other than thoroughly investigating every lead. Racial resentment pervades the show on every front, tribal and ugly. Where the feelings are more complex, as with a Mexican-American father who immigrated legally and wants his children to embrace the values and potential of his new homeland, the media are there to splice his comments into something more inflammatory than their full context implies.
The murdered man’s in-laws represent other stress fractures families experience when their loved ones come under a microscope after a crime, but even this is explored through a subtle lens of skin color. Though the characters are apparently Christians, they don’t turn to their faith as any sort of guidance or comfort. We see them sitting in worship service, but there’s no indication it has any impact on how they’re processing events. We never see them consult a pastor or even unburden themselves to spiritually like-minded friends.
The implication seems to be that religion, like every other aspect of the narrative, is simply a matter of race and class. Certainly that’s true for some churchgoers, but plenty of believers have, by staggering grace, demonstrated mercy while suffering the most terrible losses. By failing to illustrate this reality, the show misses a chance to inject some hope and light into unrelentingly dark proceedings.
Two other shows dealing with race have been ratings bonanzas for ABC. The difference is, both Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat are comedies. By laughing at the foibles of our intersecting cultural perspectives and habits, they relieve tension. American Crime, in contrast, underlines the constant, soul-sickening squabbling over names like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Rob Javier Vega Jr.
As well-executed as the series may be, the public may very well be weary-to-despondency of the themes it explores. They’re already watching the same drama unfold on the news every night.
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