Scowls of a Summer Night: American Crime
Anthology shows are all the rage these days because if the show is a hit, you can avoid the actors asking for too much money to do the second season by just firing everybody and bringing in a bunch of scrubs. Thanks, True Detective! The latest offering in this vein from ABC is American Crime, which brings along a genuine heavy hitter in the form of creator John Ridley (who, among other things, wrote 12 Years a Slave), a well-trod but still promising premise that offers the chance to examine issues of money, class, and race in the American justice system, and a decidedly mixed bag of performers to bring it to the screen.
Because it’s got a whole season to keep us on the hook, American Crime teases out its mystery at a snail’s pace. It examines the aftermath of an apparent home invasion resulting in the murder of a young veteran and the near-death of his beautiful wife, but all we know heading into the second episode is that the only suspects are people of color. We don’t see the grisly slaying itself, or have any real sense of its motive or circumstance; like the police investigating the affair, we are very much in the dark, fumbling around for an explanation and perhaps a little too quick to blame people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is handled pretty skillfully by Ridley, who keeps all his cards close to the vest early on, keeping us deeply involved in the mystery while sending a pretty clear signal that this won’t be a typical whodunit.
What Ridley really has on his mind is the way that we as a society process these crimes, not necessarily the people who are responsible for them. It emerges in the second episode, for example, that our heroic soldier may have been involved with drugs, and that his angelic wife might have had consensual sex with multiple partners rather than having been raped as initially thought. However, it’s unclear so far whether these factors have anything to do with the attack; what Ridley wants us to notice is whether or not people perceive them as having to do with the attack. To police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys alike, it’s clear that these matters will be made public and used to shape our perception of the crime, whether or not they had any relevance.
Similarly, the racial element is deliberately played up by everyone, regardless of whether or not it has any bearing on the facts at hand. A reporter tries to push the angle that all the suspects in the attack are black or Latino, and while at least one family member angrily refuses to make that an issue, it’s clear that the press will find someone who will if it means selling more papers. Telling the story largely from the perspective of the victims’ families is an interesting dramatic choice — it both removes the focus from the usual high-action, low-empathy angle of cops and robbers drama, and puts us in a position to realize that there is no less bias and suspicion among the blameless victims as there is in any other part of the criminal system. Since the young couple is white, this plays out in some unexpected ways; Felicity Huffman, as the soldier’s mother, is a particular focal point, and could not be more repellent for it. She almost immediately evaporates our goodwill, accusing the black detective investigating her son’s killing of deliberately botching the job and complaining to a victims’ rights advocate that there’s no such thing as a hate crime against white people. (She fails to recognize that the only reason the case brings so much attention in the first place is because the victims were white.)
Huffman is a big part of American Crime‘s problem. There’s no issue with her excellent performance (the same cannot be said for Penelope Ann Miller, playing the wife’s mother; Miller is as lousy an actress today as she was 30 years ago), but she’s so detestable as a human being — she almost immediately makes the murder of her son all about her, and an excuse to make everyone feel sorry for how her life didn’t turn out the way she wanted it to, and in such an obnoxious way that you start hoping that she has another kid someone could murder just to get on her nerves. It’s not so much that the role is unrealistic; plenty of victims’ families make their tragedies into a referendum on their characters, or are far too ready to blame a senseless crime on the most convenient ethnic minority. It’s just that Huffman is so unpleasant that she’s impossible to develop empathy for.
The show is streaked with this problem. It would be wrong, of course, to expect there to be any light-hearted elements to American Crime; it is, after all, a show about the human wreckage left behind by a brutal murder, and no one could reasonably demand that it leaven the mood with a couple of good jokes. But everyone in it is so relentlessly dour all the time, often to no good end — it’s hard to know what to make of the drug-addicted couple who don’t do anything but wander around antagonizing everyone and pouting until one of them is arrested for murder, or of the heavily tattooed Latino criminal who speaks in a low mutter and isn’t smart enough not to repeatedly use a dead man’s credit card — that you begin to think that you can’t spend another five minutes with any of them, let alone nine more episodes. If the show opens up and starts to tell us something interesting about crime, race, or society, and I have every expectation that it will, this resolute unpleasantness will at least be in service of a greater narrative; but as it’s still stuck with no greater lesson than “having one of your relatives get murdered is a bummer”, it’s hard to see past it.
The inequality of the acting, mostly on behalf of a bunch of untried young actors and the bafflingly still-employed Penelope Ann Miller, is balanced out by the likes of Huffman, an arresting Timothy Hutton, and the always-welcome W. Earl Brown, for once playing a decent and upstanding figure instead of a knife-wielding recidivist. And Ridley has some real chops, both in constructing his story and framing it visually. (It’s set in Modesto, but filmed in Austin — what, they couldn’t afford Modesto?) As broad as some of the plotlines are and as much trouble some of the characters are having getting off the ground, there’s enough quality evident in the whole production to practically demand viewers stick with American Crime. But it needs to open up its scope a lot faster than it’s been doing, or risk becoming a wallow instead of an investigation.