American Crime premieres tonight on ABC, and the show looks at murder, law enforcement, the justice system, race, class, and respectability politics — all of which are in the zeitgeist right now.
The cruelty and confusion of a seemingly senseless murder centers this story, but the peeks at all the lives affected by it are what give it some heft.
Russ Skokie (played by Timothy Hutton) gets the call that his all-American son Matt — former military, calls his dad every Sunday — has been murdered in his home, and former beauty queen daughter-in-law Gwen has been left on the brink of death after being sexually assaulted and beaten in the same crime. Russ’ guttural, reactive moans open the show, and there’s no way to sidestep the central pain of this crime. But as the show moves forward, it’s also asking you to consider the countless other crimes that go unexamined and unreported, or even to look a little closer at what you consider to be a crime in the first place.
American Crime is compelling, if a little slow at times. By focusing on the lives of everyone who seems to be on the periphery of this murder, the show is able to build tension without sacrificing story. What was unexpected, though perhaps intentional, is that I found myself worrying about all the small ways the system was failing each of the characters. Aubry and Carter’s “junkies in love” story is a bit cliché, but the way life is literally beating Aubry down at every turn was too much to handle at times, knowing that women too often bear the brunt of physical and emotional violence. Carter doesn’t have it any easier, but once something happens to separate them you quickly realize that Aubry is defenseless in a way that is familiar.
Executive producer John Ridley is no stranger to building a compelling story around conceits like race and class, and he doesn’t shy away from doing it here, either. The Gutiérrez family is an interesting case of respectability politics on display; dad Alonzo (played by Benito Martinez) fights hard to have his two kids toe the line to avoid being thought of as “just Mexican,” and when generally good son Tony (played by Johnny Ortiz) has a run in with the cops, Alonzo is so focused on following the rules that he fails to truly protect his son for the first time, with disastrous results. These stories are layered in such a way that it’s not easy or even necessary to place blame, even when you know someone has done something wrong, or something wrong is done to them. Alonzo’s failing is not a result of his vigilance, but of his belief that America would protect him.
And that’s reason enough alone to watch this show. In this cultural moment, when almost everyone I know is at least suspicious of — if not completely fed up with — law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the wake of highly racialized, highly publicized crimes, it’s worth paying attention to the moments when it all could have changed.
Felicity Huffman’s stunning performance as Barb Hanlon, Matt’s mom, is another reason to watch the show. She’s pragmatic to the point of appearing like a coldhearted bitch, but the more you watch, the more you realize her evasiveness is really just her transparency in action. And that transparency is fascinating — a single mom forced to raise her kids in public housing, she seems to have a deep-seated resentment of brown people, at one point asking her estranged ex-husband, “A white mother and her white kids, do you know how those people treated my boys?” The easy way words like “those people” roll off of her tongue is unsettling, mostly because it conveys the confidence of someone who knows the political heft of using those specific, degrading terms, and knows that other people around her will feel the same way. Barb lives in a world of absolutes, a world that makes less sense after her son’s murder and the details she learns about his life in the aftermath. She easily tells a reporter that her son was “killed by an illegal,” saying, “Figures—he goes to fight a war in another country and comes here to be killed by someone from another country.” There’s no examination of the perceived irony or bigotry, even when Barb doesn’t have all of the facts about the crime.
The first episode feels more like a series of clips strung together at first, but it eventually becomes more cohesive. As the show dips in and out of each character’s life, it becomes an examination of the American legal process, from start to finish, but in a way that still feels heightened by fear and danger.
Are we comfortable locking up teenagers who are first time offenders and trying them like adults? Is it better or just easier to write off drug addicts right away? Where do you aim your compassion when you’re not sure if someone is guilty or innocent? A lot of people will pay attention to the crime, but I’m left wondering so much more about what it means to be an American.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.