American Crime is somewhat of a full circle moment for John Ridley. Before “Oscar-Winning Screenwriter” became his prefix, he was a writer on Martin — a hallmark on a great FOX ’90s lineup that included In Living Color, Living Single and New York Undercover. Two decades later, Shondaland Thursdays, Black-ish, and Fresh Off The Boat have turned ABC into the network television diversity capital. Ridley gets a piece of that city with his new ABC show, American Crime. He showed up at New York University for a special screening of the drama’s first two episodes. Full circle.
Behind the plot…
Ridley’s new series is still an anomaly in ABC’s lineup. Race is barely a plot point in Shondaland dramas, and Wednesday’s Black-ish/Fresh Off The Boat two-piece flips the issue for family comedy. American Crime is a crime anthology, but it’s not one that primarily focuses on a whodunit (and there aren’t supernatural elements, so the True Detective comparisons die there). The series revolves around a murder of one man and his wife, the grieving white divorced parents, and the suspects: a too obvious to be totally culpable Mexican gang member, a whiny Mexican teen (more on him later), and a hopelessly in love, drug-addicted interracial couple. Those racial adjectives are necessary because American Crime drills it in your head pretty early that race, gender and social class play a huge stake in this show.
There’s a bigger focus on connectivity here, though (full circle). It isn’t just about how the suspects are connected to the murder, but how they and the mourning characters share similar emotional wounds despite their differing backgrounds. Everyone is a victim in some way here. The murder victim’s mother — Felicity Huffman’s Barb Hanlon — comes across cold as she pushes her daughter-in-law’s parents to speak to media. But you get the reason soon enough: she was forced to live in a housing project thanks to her ex-husband’s (Timothy Hutton’s Russ Skokie) gambling habits, and her son was continuously violated by minorities presumably for being white. The public needs to know white people are victims of hate crimes, too!
As you’d expect from an Oscar-Winning Screenwriter (12 Years a Slave), American Crime comes with potentially crippling ambition. However, the first two episodes are sturdy. A big reason is because instead of preaching its focus to the viewers, it often aims for pathos. One way it does this is how it’s beautifully shot and well edited. American Crime’s opening salvo is at its best when dialogue plays in the background for humanism. Russ’ anguished yells upon seeing his sons body — its sudden emphasis and juxtaposition to the rationalizing that comes before — sticks out. Then there’s how we jumpily cut through facial expressions as the conversations flow unedited. With shallow depth of focus and slow zooms, you kind of get that it’s the emotion that’s supposed to be front and center.
There’s unfulfilled potential elsewhere, though. Let’s take the characters for examples. Russ spends the first two episodes in grief and suspense; there’s nothing quite there yet other than a reformed gambler trying to make sense of the situation. Barb’s arc has potential for crowd-pleasing volatility, but she rarely comes off as sympathetic. They can grow, though. The one place were American Crime really shot its self in the foot over is the teenager who accidentally gets himself caught up — Johnny Ortiz’s Tony Guitterez. He’s the victim of very American corrosion — a manipulative justice system and a self-hating father – and has his motives awkwardly misplaced. The sore point is when he’s being interrogated by police for intentionally renting the car to the arrested gang member (which gets him in cuffs), and he suddenly barks at his over-controlling father that he never lets him do anything. The dude is being questioned by police and suddenly brings his daddy issues up. Then there’s the scene where he goes crying to a juvenile detention officer because the co-detainees call him a bitch. You get he’s supposed to be a victim, but this is just ridiculous.
But other than that and the occasionally clunky dialogue (the sister — Gleendilys Inoa’s Jenny Guitterez — calling out pops on being a self-hating pops reads as awkward and on the nose), American Crime does show that it could work. Its potential strength is apparent in druggie couple Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard) and Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco). The two live in physical squalor and stupor, but they have a love so pure at its core (demonstrated in dreamily shot visions, which provides an escape from their broken emotions) that it transcends their situation. In a way, they represent what you hope the American Crime could be: a show that puts humanism ahead of obligatory prothelisizing. It’s too early to call where it will head judging from the first two episodes. I am hopeful, though (mostly because they used TV on the Radio’s “Standing on the Sun” in the promos — but still).
One-on-one with Ridley…
After the screening came a Q&A session between Ridley and associate professor Michael Dinwiddie. The latter was more or less a voice for the attending audience while the former was transparent. Ridley mentioned he was interested in returning to the university and teared when thinking about the students’ prospects: “It wasn’t that long ago I was sitting out there.” Everybody was here for American Crime, thought, and Ridley had answers.
In the session, Ridley spoke about the genesis of the show. It wasn’t his idea: ABC producer Michael McDonald approached him in Aug. 2013 about the idea of making a show about, “Us: where we are as a nation and look at it through the lenses of crime.”
“I though it was interesting, but I would love to try and examine the concept not from the lenses of police and prosecutors, but rather from the families,” Ridley said. “Those individuals go through a system that doesn’t resolve itself for weeks or months — sometimes it takes even years.”
The infamous Central Park Five also came to mind when making American Crime.
“I remember being here and I remember, as a citizen, watching these things happen and being told over and over again, in no certain terms, that those young men did what they were accused of,” Ridley said. “It wasn’t until years later when we realized that … I think lied to is an understatement.
Ridley was also forthcoming on what he hopes American Crime will inspire. Connection doesn’t just play a role in the series, but also in real life.
A student asked the executive producer about All Is By My Side — the Andre 3000-starring Jimi Hendrix biopic he wrote and directed — not being nominated for an Oscar. Accolades aren’t the endgame, and that’s also the case for American Crime. It’s more about the word of mouth.
“The conversations that you will have are important; it deserves to be heard in that regard,” Ridley said.”
And American Crime doesn’t aim to inspire talk by just a socio-political conversation. It’s a human drama at its core, and Ridley — admittedly a “romantic” at heart — touched on that aspect of his latest work during the session.
“To me, at its best, entertainment — it’s an empathy machine,” Ridley said. “And if we get ourselves to the point where we can fill a bit of empathy for people who are completely diametrically opposed to what we believe and say, but understand at the core that they’re just trying to find their way in the world, that’s when I think we’re trying to move the needle a little bit.“