There’s a long history of TV shame — fine network series that too many viewers ignored, resulting in low ratings, resulting in constant “on the cancelation bubble” talk, resulting in the likes of NBC, ABC, and CBS shying away from subtlety to grab eyes, resulting in the lowering of quality across the board, resulting in more rote procedurals and more rotten reality TV, resulting in the increasing irrelevancy of network TV in general. You’ve probably heard the biggest names on the list, including “Freaks and Geeks,” “My So-Called Life,” and, may it rest in the eternal peace it so deeply deserves, “Friday Night Lights.”
Ladies and gentleman please welcome a new member to the TV Shame Hall of Fame: “American Crime.” The induction ceremony will feature a spectacular performance by no one, since no one will be attending, since no one seems to care, since it’s too damn good for everyone.
Seriously, it’s an American crime that this ABC anthology series is currently in ratings hell. Now a few episodes into its third season, “American Crime” is officially ABC’s lowest-rated show, down over 50 percent from season two, and season two’s numbers were piddling. The most recent episode drew a dire 1.6 million viewers, and the DVR numbers — which sometimes buoy a struggling series — have been minimal. Most of the ratings-focused websites are predicting that the show will not be renewed. The only hope is that, since “American Crime” has gotten 14 Emmy nominations, with two wins for Regina King, ABC will want to keep it around as its prestige drama.
I don’t think the title has helped the show, to be honest; it’s vague and, to some extent, inaccurate. Yes, “American Crime” portrays crimes — seasonone was about a home invasion gone very wrong, season two was about teen sexual assault at a private school, and season three, with a broader canvas than the first two, is about undocumented immigrants, prostitution, dangerous worker conditions, and drug addiction. But the title implies that the drama will be something like the neat procedurals that wallpaper the prime-time lineup, instead of the antidote to them. “American Crime” brings the kind of intimacy and opacity that is rare on network TV, and unheard of on the formulaic likes of “NCIS” and “CSI” and “Law & Order.”
Created by Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley, the series follows the model Ryan Murphy set up for his “American Horror Story.” Each season features a different plot and milieu, and a number of the actors return each year in different roles, including Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Lili Taylor, and King. But all the seasons share Ridley’s unusually intimate, probing style, as he refuses to soft-sell the pain, confusion, and cruelty of his characters. The cameras, in a semi-experimental fashion, linger closely on their faces, even when they’re not speaking, as if trying to glimpse their souls, and the scripts gradually, confidently dig into their motivations and emotional ambiguities. It’s acting heaven, as Ridley gives his casts — which always include remarkable newcomers such as Connor Jessup and Ana Mulvoy-Ten — endless room to shine.
The current season is the most ambitious so far, and that, too, may be getting in the way of ratings. Like another low-rated but high-quality series, “The Wire,” the season tries to link disparate story lines and characters in order to portray the interactivity of the deficits and abuses of America’s various institutions. Set in North Carolina, the season follows a 17-year-old prostitute who’s trying to turn against her pimp, a Mexican father (played with heartbreaking stoicism by Benito Martinez) searching for his missing son, the callous owners of a failing tomato farm, their victimized workers, including a drug addict, and many others. Slowly, the pieces start to fall together, and as they do they gesture from the specific personal tragedies to broad American failures.
“American Crime” is also like “The Wire” in its socio-economic scope. In his commitment to hard truths, Ridley consistently puts racial and class issues into play. Each season, his canvas includes people of color, the poor and the wealthy, and various political outlooks. This season in particular reaches far and wide, top to bottom. I’m not saying “American Crime” is as rich as “The Wire,” or as complex. It’s definitely a network drama, with all the content limitations that requires. But the two shows share a determination to unearth the inequalities and the corruption embedded in our systems. They aren’t in the business of helping viewers block out the problems that plague our country.
If “American Crime” bites the dust, I will grieve. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s as enterprising, unsentimentalized, and honest a show as I’ve seen on network TV in a while.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.