We gave it a B+
You don’t give a TV show an epic title like American Crime unless you truly believe that it has the potential to be a Great American Crime Drama. That’s exactly what this new series from Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) aspires to be. Following the aftermath of a home invasion that leaves war veteran Matt Skokie murdered and his wife, Gwen (Kira Pozehl), assaulted, it’s a hugely ambitious exploration of the way race and class shape people in Modesto, Calif.—and, by extension, the rest of the country. The perspective shifts between the white victims’ families (Matt’s parents are played by Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton) and the four suspects brought into custody, allowing American Crime to focus on characters whose worldviews aren’t often shown on network television. There’s Tony (Johnny Ortiz), a naive Mexican-American teenager raised by a strict single dad (Benito Martinez); Hector (Richard Cabral), a Mexican immigrant who’s wanted for murder; Aubry (Caitlin Gerard), a white meth-head who grew up in foster care; and her addict boyfriend, Carter (Elvis Nolasco), whose Muslim sister (Regina King) insists that he represents “every black man who cannot get justice.” Well acted, beautifully shot, and thoughtfully written to emphasize the ripple effect of individuals’ actions upon society, it’s ABC’s answer to the macro storytelling found in dramas like The Wire and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. But unlike those dramas, it made me think far more often than it made me care about the people involved.
American Crime desperately needs a McNulty, a Wallace, or an Omar. It aims so broad that its characters sometimes feel less like human beings than straw men serving political debates. Tony’s father blames his son’s incarceration on illegals who give Mexicans a bad rep. Carter’s sister tells other Muslims that white greed is ruining their community. Matt’s mother argues that his murder should be tried as an antiwhite hate crime. The exceptions are Tony and his sister (Gleendilys Inoa), who feel like real teenagers, thanks to standout performances from actors young enough to remember what it’s like to be too old to let Daddy take care of you but too young to care for yourself.
When American Crime makes room for that kind of nuance, it’s powerful. A scene where Matt’s mother panics after getting a bad haircut tells you more about her than any hate-crime screed. Subtle moments like that give me hope that once American Crime has set up its world, it won’t need to state its themes so overtly. It’s not a Great American Crime Drama yet. But it’s a good one. B+