Drama is easy. While the latter half of the famous showbiz statement (adapted from Edmund Kean’s alleged last words) holds no relevance to “American Crime” — a show so steeped in its seriousness you’re more likely to see a dinosaur show up than a character laughing — it’s also generally beside the point. Drama is easy, whether you compare it to comedy or any other genre. So common is anything noticeably emotional in our society that we’re all too well versed in it. There’s drama in a test taken at school or a commuter’s daily race to the office. It’s great drama that’s hard and drawing a line between the two even more difficult — and subjective.
“American Crime” has all the markings of the next great drama. It’s even been labeled as such in its marketing campaign and with (superficially) good reason. From the mind and pen of Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, who’s last project was the just as purposeful but more focused “12 Years a Slave,” “American Crime” tracks the fallout of family after family, following the brutal robbery of a young couple and a young man’s death. His parents, played by Oscar winner Timothy Hutton and Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman, are the first people notified and it’s through their experience we first cope with the tragedy.
Through the ensuing police investigation we’re introduced to a broader group of characters, including various suspects, relative innocents nevertheless linked to the crime and, of course, their families. Each new character carries a unique and specifically targeted background, as the setting — Modesto, California, a mid-size city about 90 minutes east of San Francisco — allows for a diverse influx of cultures, and the story demands it. More than anything else, “American Crime” is about race relations in this country and it arrives at a time when consideration and change are most needed.
As a matter of socio-political relevance, it’s impossible to argue against the new show’s pertinency. Its timing couldn’t be better, nor could its acting talent. Huffman and Hutton — the two “leads” in a show nearly even with its distribution of screen time — are in peak form carrying weighty roles. As the father of the murdered victim, Hutton is given one scene of overt emotional catharsis in the first four episodes before being forced into a state of barely-contained anguish, confusion and persistence. The standout scene isn’t perfect, but it also comes very early on in the show, helping to establish a quick pace fueled by jump cuts and compact scene structuring.
Huffman takes on the role of an unlikable mother filled with complicated rage, often released in racist outbursts or implied mutterings. Not quite the villain but certainly no hero, the former “Desperate Housewives” star won’t earn any new fans playing Barb, but she may land another Emmy. In fact, ABC should be seeing more than a few nominations for the “American Crime” cast members. A few veteran character actors deliver career-defining turns — namely W. Earl Brown (“True Detective”) and Benito Martinez (“House of Cards”) — while a few newcomers should breakout after just a few episodes. Johnny Ortiz, who plays the son of Martinez’s hard-working mechanic, is particularly striking and equally devastating in his character’s big and small moments.
But what’s good for the actors is ultimately damaging to the series. Every character is given too much to take on. [Light spoilers follow.] The father isn’t just a heartbroken white divorcee but an gambling addict. One of the suspects isn’t just a Mexican victim of police brutality but also wanted for murder in his home country. Another suspect’s sister isn’t just a prideful black woman but also a devout Muslim preacher. Even the victims aren’t spared overstuffing, as more secrets come tumbling out of their past with each episode. [End of spoilers.]
It’s the lack of a lighter touch that keeps Ridley’s epic ambition from achieving its lofty goals. Overdetermined and under-nuanced, what’s meant to feel more authentic than anything yet seen on broadcast TV actually loses its realism as it goes along. With every strained attempt to include a new demographic into a conversation already well-suited to be widely applicable, “American Crime” distances itself from the discussion it so desperately wants to steer. The result, despite a melodic pacing and perfectly-tuned cast, is a cacophonous blare.
Ridley’s program isn’t alone in its misaligned execution. Films like “Crash” and “Precious” had similar aims and were widely hailed for them at the outset, but now are mocked for their didactic approaches to sensitive material. “American Crime” is a giant step ahead of these truly loathsome entries, but it should face similar criticisms. Rather than let human connections on screen create naturally empathetic feelings in the audience, each scene is driven home with a blunt force too heavy for the story’s strengths.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about the series is there are beautiful moments of subtlety carefully placed — albeit too sparsely — throughout the first four episodes. Ridley and his writing team are clearly capable of the grace needed for this material, but ultimately choose the “more is better” approach that’s ultimately less brave. Dealing with national issues as meaningful as racial persecution on a bureaucratic level certainly isn’t easy, and the need to go overboard is understandable given the amount of justified frustration sweeping our country. But for all its good intentions and legitimate claims to greatness (its existence on the widely-viewed medium of broadcast TV is still a move in the right direction), “American Crime” employs too many easy designs to have any kind of lasting effect.