ABC’s heavily promoted and justifiably hyped entry into the prestige TV market now cornered by premium cable and streaming services, the pilot episode of American Crime kicked off a limited-run, 11-episode arc Thursday: the triumphant return to television by Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, installed here as creator-writer-director.
It presents a multicultural pile-on of compelling characters with inter-weaving story lines and cloudy motives—American lives redefined or suddenly hemmed in by their jarring collisions with American criminality—focused around a murder investigation but absent the usual bells and whistles of a network police procedural. It’s gripping, smart, and finely observed but almost relentlessly lugubrious stuff.
Timothy Hutton portrays Russ Skokie, summoned to the small-town concrete sprawl of Modesto, California to identify the remains of his Iraq War veteran son Matt, who’s been murdered in a home invasion robbery. He’s joined there by his ex-wife Barb (Felicity Huffman), a woman still pulsating rage decades after their bitter divorce forced her to raise the couple’s two sons single-handedly in public housing. Thanks to the indignities she suffered thanks to people from different cultures there, Barb’s reflexive bigotry bubbles to the surface as she ponders Matt’s male Latino murder suspect as “some illegal,” ruefully commenting: “It just figures. My son goes off to another country to fight, then he comes home to be killed by someone from another country.”
Richard Cabral plays Hector, a shifty dude with neck tattoos who’s introduced purchasing Beats By Dre headphones with the dead man’s credit card (and, soon after, derided by a gang member as a perra for his status as a recent immigrant and smaller than small-time crook). Cut to a pair of star-crossed meth heads (Elvis Nolasco and Caitlin Gerard), a kind of Bonnie and Clyde in love and squalor—she, white, a sometimes prostitute; he, black, a sometimes stick-up man—who maintain a vision board in their run-down motel room when not caressing each other lovingly or chasing a chemical high.
And Benito Martinez (of The Shield and House of Cards supporting player fame) portrays Alonzo, a widower father and gas station mechanic struggling to keep his teenage children on a straight and narrow path. He’s an overbearing fortysomething of unerring rectitude who castigates illegal immigrants from Latin America as “the ones who always make the rest of us look bad.”
With ominous portent—with each character’s racial profiling expectations and representative hot button issues pushed for maximum effect—their plotlines are initially laid out in parallel narratives to strongly recall Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 crime drama Traffic (which explored the spread, policing and consumption of illegal drugs from differing societal perspectives), as my colleague Melissa Maerz noted in her review. But in American Crime—whose American-ness seems largely defined by upending conventional wisdom about class and ethnicity in a post-Ferguson world—everything is more than what it outwardly seems.
Alonzo’s guileless, sheltered son (Johnny Ortiz) winds up in police custody as a suspect in the murder. As detectives begin to triangulate the events leading to tragedy (that also left Matt’s former beauty queen wife in a coma, an apparent victim of sexual assault), Nolasco’s junkie character is also hauled into jail in handcuffs. And while Barb can’t bring herself to visit Matt at the morgue, she demands to be present for his alleged murderer’s perp walk.
The big surprise, however, is left for the episode’s cliffhanging closing moments. A police detective informs Russ that methamphetamines and marijuana were found bundled inside Matt’s apartment—substantial quantities suggesting use above and beyond a little weekend fun. “Would your son have told you if he was a drug dealer?” she asks Russ.
In a quietly devastating moment, Hutton’s lived-in face seems to crumble in on itself. “I would know something like that,” he says quietly, trying and not quite succeeding to convince himself it’s true.