The ABC television network is on a real roll as far as offering quality programming is concerned because within the past two weeks it has introduced two first-class crime dramas. Last week we discussed “Secrets and Lies,” an intriguing murder mystery set in a North Carolina neighborhood and airing on ABC Sundays at 9 p.m.
Just four nights after “Secrets and Lies” made its auspicious debut, ABC launched “American Crime,” an 11-episode series that promises to be every bit as good, and maybe even better, than its forerunner. Obviously the ABC powers realized they had to come up with something exceptional to fill the Thursday-at-10 p.m.-slot vacated by the outstanding “How to Get Away With Murder,” which recently wrapped for the season, and their choice is not a disappointment.
Created by Academy Award-winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), “American Crime” begins as Russ Skokie (Timothy Hutton) is awakened in the middle of the night by a telephone call from the police in Modesto, Calif., informing him that his son, Matt, an Iraq war veteran, has been murdered during a break-in at his home. The police ask Russ, who is divorced and living in Arizona, to come to Modesto to identify the body of his son.
Russ takes the first flight he can get, and shortly after his arrival in Modesto, he learns that Matt’s wife is in a coma as a result of the incident, and the police suspect she has been raped. In an incredibly gut-wrenching scene, Russ positively identifies Matt’s body and then awaits the arrival of his ex-wife, Barbara (Felicity Huffman), who is travelling from Simi Valley.
Now while all of this is transpiring, we meet the Hispanic Gutierrez family headed by Alonzo (Benito Martinez), a widower who his raising his two teenage children, Tony (Johnny Ortiz) and Jenny (Gleendylis Inoa). Alonzo owns and operates a garage, and from the moment he enters the picture, it’s obvious that he rules his household like a dictator. Alonzo’s family is important because through circumstances I won’t reveal, Tony becomes one of the major suspects in the crime.
While we’re on the subject of suspects, we may as well list the two other ones here. Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco) is a drug-addicted African American scumbag who makes sure his white girlfriend, Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard), is always high. Then there’s Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral), a heavily tattooed weasel closely connected to all the other criminals in the neighborhood.
Two additional key characters in this riveting drama are Tom (W. Earl Brown) and Eve (Penelope Ann Miller) Carlin, the distraught parents of Gwen, who is lying comatose in a hospital bed.
And then there’s Barbara. When she arrives on the scene, we know immediately that it’s going to be very easy to hate her. It’s obvious that she loathes her ex-husband, and she has absolutely no sympathy for his anguish. The tension between the two of them is electric, and there’s also no love lost between Barbara and Gwen’s parents.
The first two episodes of the series set up the situation, introduce the main characters, and launch the investigation. The acting is so consistently superior that you are immediately drawn into the lives of all the characters, and you will become so wrapped up in the plot that you will eagerly anticipate each episode.
Every character in the show is intriguing, and early on there are hints that racial issues in the case will be unavoidable. Nolasco and Cabral are marvelously despicable as two of the suspects, and Ortiz succeeds beautifully in eliciting conflicting emotions from us about Johnny. Should we dislike him, or should we feel sorry for him?
There’s no doubt, however, about our feelings for Gwen’s parents. Brown and Miller are superb as the bereaved couple helplessly watching their daughter teeter on the brink of death. However, they are deeply religious, and instead of attending the arraignment of the suspects in court, they opt for a church service. Of course this is something Barbara simply cannot understand, and it’s just another bone of contention between them.
But Hutton and Huffman are the stars here, and both of them are absolutely brilliant. The scene in which Russ identifies Matt’s body will rip your heart out, and despite the fact that Russ has had some serious problems in the past, Hutton manages to make his character one with whom we sympathize. In an online interview with Jay Bobbin of Zap2it, Hutton explained how his conversations with director John Ridley drew him to the project.
“From the beginning, the conversations with John — about the characters and their place in the story and what they mean to it overall — were really great conversations in a way that I had never experienced before. They were very, very specific. Ideas were shared. And it was clear that this wasn’t just going to be a story about the outcome of this investigation, but that it would really focus on the details of these people, everyday people, that all intersect one another because of this tragedy. We were going to follow each of them, not just what they had to say, but what they do in a given day.”
In the same interview Ridley explained how ABC approached him and what he was hoping to achieve in the series.
“ABC had a desire to do a show that looked at where we are now, and who we are now, and do it through an inciting incident that people tend to galvanize around. And one of the things that I wanted to explore was the concept that it’s not about the police. It’s not about the prosecutors. But it really is about the family and what they deal with not just for 45 minutes, but the fact is that these events usually take months, if not years, to deal with. And sometimes even then, there’s not a resolution.”
And now we come to Huffman, whose performance here has an Emmy nomination written all over it. She imbues Barbara with a tight-lipped, glaring demeanor that chills you to the bone with its coldness. This very well may be the finest work of Huffman’s stellar career, and in an online interview with Diane Gordon of “Vulture,” Huffman talked about her reaction to first reading the script, how the part fits into her career, and the difficulty in playing it.
“Because I was reading it from the point of view of the character I would play, Barb, I thought it would be a tightrope walk to play that character because it’s hard to make someone so driven — you know, her motivation is pure, but the way she presents it is so off-putting — I thought that would be a tightrope walk, and I was interested in the challenge.
“I feel like the older I get, my characters become less and less likable as I work my way down the ladder of affability. I think it’s a cool challenge, and maybe one of the few gifts of getting older is possibly you’re courageous enough to go, ‘I don’t care if you like me.’
All the episodes were really hard to do. I guess it was staying in that internally parched place. Barb is internally, emotionally parched, and it was sort of like, hanging out in that place was not fun. And also, I was shooting to be really simple; at least that’s what I was going for.”
Simply put, “American Crime” is one of the best shows on television right now, and that’s saying quite a bit because there are a plethora of them. But this one belongs on the must-see list, and it earns the final score of an inarguable 10. Missing this great series would be a crime!