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ABC's 'American Crime' Soars on the Strength of its Daring, Daunting Premise
March 5, 2015  | By Ed Bark  | 3 comments
 

Brace yourself for American Crime. This is one brave-ass series. Which couldn’t be said for a good long while about a Big Four broadcast network drama.

Cable networks and “streaming” services, no matter their size or reach, have taken the play away from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox with one lauded show after another. They’ve mostly scored on the hour-long drama front while the traditional broadcasters repeatedly dared to be same-old, same-old.

It’s true that Fox stuck one foot outside the box with Empire, which now seems destined to go down as the first-ever predominantly black drama series to become a bona fide, long-lasting hit. Still, it’s otherwise a contemporary throwback to Dallas and Dynasty with all those broadly played displays of one family explosion after another amid mostly opulent settings.

ABC’s American Crime, filmed in Austin and created by 12 Years A Slave writer John Ridley, isn’t a hand-me-down from anything else seen on a broadcast network. Publicity materials say a mouthful, all of it essentially true: “Told from the points of view of all those involved, this new drama examines preconceptions on faith, family, gender, race, class and other aspects of our social experience with an approach and perspectives historically underserved in media.”

Ridley, who is African-American, has put two well-known white actors at the top of his marquee. Felicity Huffman likely will emerge as the favorite to win the next drama series best actress Emmy as severely judgmental Barb Hanlon. And Timothy Hutton, cast as her ex-husband, Russ Skokie, has his meatiest role since winning an Oscar for his long-ago performance in Ordinary People.

Hutton has the very first scene, learning in the dead of the night that his character’s son, Matt, has been murdered in a Modesto, CA home invasion that also left his wife, Gwen, critically injured and in a coma. All three principal suspects are rounded up by the end of Thursday’s Episode 1. They’re also all minorities.

***Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco) is a street thug and drug addict who nonetheless is something of a guardian angel for his white and very dazed girlfriend, Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard).

***Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral) is a mean streets survivor who’s made numerous accommodations with his neighborhood’s criminal element.

 ***Tony Gutierrez (Johnny Ortiz) strives to stay out of trouble but chafes under the authoritarian rule of his widowed father, Alonzo (Benito Martinez). Implicated as an unwitting accessory to murder, Tony admits while in Juvie that it kind of made him “happy I was doing something that would piss him off.”

All is not as it seems, of course. And if you’ve heard that before, you haven’t seen it portrayed in such searing terms on a broadcast network drama series.

Regina King (right), who co-starred in the 1980s on the NBC sitcom 227, as well as the acclaimed Southland, also has a pivotal role as Nix’s sister. Born Doreen Nix, she’s become a converted Muslim with the name Aliyah Shadeed.

“You take their drugs, you sleep with their women and then they put you in their cage,” she tells her brother during a contentious prison visit in Episode 3. The price of her help is threefold: Confess, ask for forgiveness and get rid of that junkie white girlfriend.

The clashes escalate as more is learned about the crime victims. Gwen’s parents, Tom and Eve Carlin (W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller), have a furious set-to with the deceased Matt’s already combustible mother and father. Hector and Tony both run afoul of fellow prisoners. And Alonzo’s only daughter, Jenny (Gleendilys Inoa), upbraids her protective father for always playing the white man’s game.

ABC sent four of the 11 scheduled episodes for review. They’re uniformly terrific while at the same having virtually no chance of matching the audience levels for How to Get Away with Murder, the hit series that American Crime is replacing for the rest of this season.

Huffman’s performance is the pace-setter, whether she’s fixated on prosecuting her son’s murder as a reverse hate crime or slamming away at her ex-husband, a recovering gambling addict who left her in the lurch years ago. Barb Hanlon’s resentments and bigotry have become part of her makeup.

Still, there are no out-and-out white devils in American Crime. Nor are the minority characters all hard-core criminals in the making. In that respect, Martinez’s performance as the strait-laced Alonzo Gutierrez is increasingly compelling. And King, as Aliyah Shadeed, thunderously preaches black pride midway through Episode 4.

American Crime isn’t for those looking for escapist entertainment before bedtime. But it is an extraordinarily intelligent and compelling look at racial dynamics and polarities. ABC deserves full credit for taking a big, bold chance with a series that moves straight to the top of broadcast TV’s limited supply of best and brightest.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
Michael Mara Strauss
Really tuned into this drama, switched from loathing Carter to having some sympathy, Aubry is a master maniulipater. All the characters really suit their roles, I view them as the people they portray, not the fine actors they all are. Tks. For tuning up my mind before retiring.
Apr 7, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Dan
I have to agree with Tony on this one. Unlike the masterful story tellers of shows like Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul, these attempt to mimic that style with this now overdone "told from their viewpoint" style, throwing a ton of characters at you all at once without taking the time to develop them or cause the viewer to care all that much. Master story tellers may take an entire season to develop their characters before kicking the story into high gear. Tonight's episode of "Saul" was a prime example of taking the time to explain a back story and developing a character such as Mike, with superb acting and compelling story to keep the viewer interested. American Crime? Not sure most will care about this one. Seems too much like been there, seen that before.
Mar 9, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Tony K.
I could barely make it through the first episode, and will not suffer through a second. Grim. I don't need The Waltons when watching network drama, but I don't need something this dark, either. With so many good options on TV today, why bother?
Mar 8, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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