Hold onto your jaws, everybody.
There are many, many scenes in “American Crime” that are fully bent on prying your mouth wide open in awe. You can feel everyone involved in this new ABC series pushing you to be blown away — by the probing camera work, by the artsy editing, by the I-will-be-nominated acting, and by the Significant American Cultural Themes of race, religion, and class that dominate the script.
Even the title, “American Crime,” implies that the 10-episode show, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m., will be a very important drama for viewers of taste to fawn over and for critics to throw onto their best-of lists. This show, the title suggests, is going to make big statements about nothing less than this country’s major social ills, a bit like the movie “Crash.”
Created by “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter and Oscar winner John Ridley, “American Crime” is all about getting the respect audiences usually reserve for cable programming such as “True Detective.” The story line is what you might expect to find on any one of network TV’s many crime procedurals: During a home invasion, a young veteran named Matt is killed and his wife, Gwen, is left in a coma. They are white; two of the three suspects are Latino and one is black. As the truth emerges in fits and starts, we question our first impressions. Matt’s parents, Barb (Felicity Huffman) and Russ (Timothy Hutton), grieve as they push the investigation forward.
But the tone of “American Crime” is conspicuously un-network-like — cool, anti-sentimental, stark. The scenes run long, never bowing to primetime’s fast-edit aesthetic; the actors get time to react and react some more, as the cameras get up in their faces so that we’re privy to every flinch, every tear. When Barb and Russ and various suspects are interviewed by the police, we often see only them in the frame; the cops are just voices in the background.
So I felt as though I was getting my nose rubbed in “quality TV” while watching the first episodes of “American Crime.” Somehow, many of the things that make the show ambitious and distinctive and compelling seemed forced, felt manipulative, got on my nerves. I saw interesting material and plenty of impressive acting, which I will describe; but I need to say upfront that part of me retreated into a cone of rebellion against all of the formal flourishes and oversize performances. I had the same reaction at times during “True Detective,” when Matthew McConaughey was nattering on about universal nonsense: Please spare me.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can say that “American Crime” is indeed filled with some impressive material, if you can get past the pretensions. The focus is on the complex relationship between Russ and Barb, whose marriage broke apart years earlier. Russ is a recovering gambler who bankrupted his family and left Barb to raise their two sons. He regrets his past, but he has moved on from it. Barb, however, is still bitter over having had to raise her sons alone in an Oakland housing project. Actually, Barb is just an all-round difficult person, simultaneously proud of having survived and angry at having had to go through hard times in the first place. Barb is also a racist, which becomes especially loud and clear once the suspects emerge.
Both Hutton and Huffman act up a storm. Russ and Barb are both pent-up types, but their feelings burst over the dam enough times to allow each actor plenty to chew on. In parental grief, Russ veers toward sorrow, Barb toward wrath. It’s considered daring, I think, for actors to play racist — I recall Sandra Bullock getting lots of kudos for going against her girl-next-door image in “Crash” — and so Huffman’s turn is particularly notable. As Barb, she takes on an intentionally stilted rhythm that makes her presence uncomfortable for everyone, including the viewer. It’s a highly stylized performance, but not without power. Hutton, with his world-weary eyes and resigned expressions, is perfectly cast.
Gwen’s parents, Tom (W. Earl Brown) and Eve (Penelope Ann Miller), provide a contrast to Russ and Barb. They’re religious, and the more they learn about their daughter as she lies silently in a hospital bed, the more they are torn from each other. Both sets of parents idealize their children, neither of whom, it appears, was particularly saintly.
I was impressed by two supporting actors, Elvis Nolasco and Caitlin Gerard, who play Carter and Aubry, a pair of junkies who are madly in love. Their mutual fixation is oddly touching, even in its radical dysfunction. Unlike many things on “American Crime,” it feels natural and organic.