‘American Crime’ Pilot Recap: “You Don’t Give a Damn About Me”

The hard-sell ads for ABC’s new drama ‘American Crime’, which repeatedly toss around the word “extraordinary” as if to berate viewers into unquestioning acknowledgement that this is already one of the greatest TV series in the history of the medium, have been more than a little off-putting. To be honest, I almost didn’t want to watch the show at all. Could anything possibly live up to that hype?

No, frankly, those ads set an expectation that nothing could ever meet. With just the premiere of the show to judge by, I have a hard time finding much “extraordinary” that I haven’t seen before in other TV series or movies, any my natural skepticism wants to push back against it. That’s both a shame and unfair, because the episode is actually pretty good on the whole. In some ways, it’s even excellent. But “extraordinary”? That’s a damn hard standard to live up to.

The series was created by John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of ’12 Years a Slave’. If you followed any of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding that movie, you may recall that director Steve McQueen feuded with Ridley, tried to claim a screenwriting credit for himself, and was reportedly livid when Ridley took home a solo Oscar trophy for it. I have no idea what really happened there or how much of the movie Ridley actually wrote, but a quick look at his filmography shows a lot of middling TV work and a few flop movies before his recent acclaim and success. None of which is to say that he isn’t capable of delivering a true television masterpiece, just that I wouldn’t automatically expect one because he has an Oscar now.

The pilot episode opens with the aftermath of a home invasion in Modesto, CA. The homeowner, a former army soldier named Matt we never meet, is dead, and his wife is left hospitalized in critical condition with signs of being raped. The police call Matt’s father Russ (Timothy Hutton) to ID the body. He’s devastated and wants answers, but not nearly as much as his ex-wife Barb (Felicity Huffman), a shrewish control freak with an unpleasant racist streak. When informed that the initial suspects are Latino, she immediately jumps to the assumption that they must be illegal immigrants, and rants as much to anyone who will listen. Barb accuses the police of doing nothing to find her son’s killer(s), and wants to make a public spectacle of the story to keep it in the news as long as possible, even though Russ and the wife’s parents want to grieve outside the spotlight of public scrutiny.

Our first suspect is a tatted-up gang-banger caught trying to use the victim’s credit cards. A seemingly clean-cut Latino kid is arrested for renting out his father’s car to the alleged perp. Somehow also tied to the case are a pair of young junkies, one of whom obviously has rage issues. As the episode ends, Russ learns that his perfect son may have been a meth dealer and had been keeping a lot of secrets from him. The wife also may not have been raped after all.

The show – or at least the pilot episode – makes very atmospheric use of the urban setting, and has really terrific performances from most of the cast. The storyline involving the junkies is unexpectedly complex, and promos for future episodes hint that the plot will have a number of twists and possibly go some ugly places regarding race relations. The episode also, unfortunately, has some annoyingly pretentious arty affectations, such as overuse of jump-cuts and shooting many dialogue scenes without showing the speakers’ faces.

Throughout, authority figures such as police and doctors are almost uniformly depicted as cold and uncaring, and the show seems to have a theme of demonizing overly-controlling parents. I’m not sure how I feel about either of those things yet.

The premiere is strong enough that I’m interested to watch more. I just wish that the ads hadn’t tried to sell the show as something more than it really is.

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