Barb Hanlon, whose son Matt turns up dead in the opening minutes of “American Crime,” is the woman to launch a thousand think pieces. As played by the magnificent Felicity Huffman, she snarls and snipes her way through grief, eliciting our sympathies while testing our patience. She raised two boys alone after her husband, Russ (Timothy Hutton), walked out, and yet her rage has metamorphosed into frank, discomfiting racism. Her targets are, in her words, “some illegal” and “a black” accused of murdering her son, and a legal system she wrongly perceives to be weighted in their favor. “Hate crimes can’t happen to white people,” she says caustically, and your reaction to ABC’s challenging, self-satisfied new drama may depend on whether you consider “American Crime” an effective critique of Barb’s unexamined privilege.
Created by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), “American Crime,” title included, wears its ambition on its sleeve. If you’ve caught any of ABC’s staccato promos, you already know the series styles itself as the broadcast network’s answer to the “serious” subject matter and “prestige” aesthetics of cable’s most acclaimed dramas, though in effect “American Crime” comes off somewhat less distinguished. The series is mostly filmed in the crisp fashion of contemporary Hollywood realism, relying on makeup and costume design to suggest the characters’ mussed-up frailties; one fillip of technique, in which bits of dialogue bleed into the subsequent image—say, the speaker staring into the distance, reflecting silently on his or her plight—is used so frequently it seems more like an unconscious tic than a meaningful tactic.
The series’ inoffensive style reflects an approach to narrative poised uneasily between the testy material and the necessities of network primetime. Whereas soapy melodramas like FOX’s “Empire” and ABC’s own “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” use their self-aware excesses to treat questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality with playful vigor, “American Crime” is so careful in stretches that it often appears to be skirting its own stated purpose—which is, per the note from Ridley at the beginning of each of the four episodes made available to critics, “a provocative, nuanced, and soulful exploration of family and faith in our country today.”
Instead, the sprawling cast often registers as schematic, a blueprint for the reconstruction of the American judicial system rather than an organic outgrowth of it. The legal proceedings that follow Matt’s death eventually ensnare Hector (Richard Cabral), a gang member; Tony (Johnny Ortiz), a teenager resentful of his strict Mexican American father (Benito Martinez); a young woman named Aubrey (Caitlin Gerard) and her boyfriend, Carter (Elvis Nolasco), both meth addicts; Carter’s sister, Aliyah (Regina King); and the leader of an advocacy group for victims and survivors of violent crime (Lili Taylor). Despite gestures at psychological nuance, for the most part these characters seem designed to represent one or another subset of the populace, and their treatment as archetypal adversaries within a faceless bureaucracy—police, prosecutors, judges, and politicians do not feature prominently in the series—hardens them, as if sculpted into statues. Symbols rarely display the texture of lived experience.
Yet, as “American Crime” unfurls its tempestuous narrative, this ideological architecture allows for a novel examination of the social contract’s bleeding edge. As Barb and Russ discover that Matt and his wife, Gwen, who suffered a brutal assault, were not in fact the ideal couple, they spar with Gwen’s parents (W. Earl Brown and Penelope Ann Miller), the authorities, and especially each other. Even when directed toward the series’ didacticism, their interactions bristle with a lifetime of bad feeling. “Now is easy to be a father, Russ,” she says. “When all you have to do is stand in front of people and be sad.”
Indeed, it’s when the series embraces its political nature that “American Crime” is at its most forceful and surprising: as Gwen’s father condemns her sexual predilections; as Tony’s sister accuses their father of wanting to be white; as Aliyah, a member of the Nation of Islam, describes her brother as an participant in the machinery of white supremacy; as Barb fights to protect her son’s memory with a veritable flood of racist comments.
With severe glasses and thin, blond hair, Barb cuts an intimidating figure, and she has the tongue to match. “I read where, with all the appeals and everything, it can take maybe 12 years to execute somebody. Is that true?” she asks. It’s clear from Huffman’s performance that Barb, like many beneficiaries of privilege, never deigns to acknowledge it, and her ferociousness—much like Aliyah’s, even though they live at opposite ends of the political spectrum—enlivens the series’ politics with a glimpse into the belly of the beast.
Perhaps even more than the combative Hector, Barb strikes me as the villain of “American Crime,” lashing out in vengeance no matter what miscarriage of justice her actions may cause. She is hateful, mean-spirited, unfair to the people of color she encounters or merely imagines, much like the nation itself, and yet she repeatedly comes up against the resistance of those who won’t be cowed into silence. The series seems likely to provoke a cascade of criticism, “the problem with ‘American Crime'” or “what ‘American Crime’ gets wrong about X,” but in the end, if you consider Barb the symbol against which the series is waging its argument, the trepidation that comes with watching it may transform, gradually, into cautious optimism.
“American Crime” is not a great series about race, religion, and justice in the United States, but it is, intermittently, a gratifyingly audacious one. It stands up to Barb much as Russ eventually does, unwilling to accept that the atmosphere of fear created by racial profiling, incarcerations, and executions is a solution to society’s ills. “You used to scare me, Barb,” he says. “That’s the only good trick you had.”
“American Crime” premieres Thursday, March 5 at 10pm on ABC.