If anyone thinks broadcast TV has all but surrendered to the presumed creative primacy of cable and streaming platforms, wait till they see ABC’s boldly provocative “American Crime,” premiering Thursday. With grit, guts and some of the best performances you'll see on TV this year, “American Crime” aims for truth and pulls no punches getting there.
What is the crime in the title of the new anthology series from John Ridley, the screenwriter for “12 Years a Slave”? At first, we assume it has to do with who killed a young married man and left his wife in a coma. Soon enough, we begin to think otherwise. But as we get to know the suspects, as well as the families of the two victims, we are prompted to consider a broader definition of crime, a more personal and in some ways more dangerous variety.
The superbly written and acted drama establishes the complex foundation of its storytelling as we meet the divorced parents of Matt Skokie, his beaten-down father, Russ (Timothy Hutton), trying to keep his life afloat after succumbing to gambling addiction and being arrested for petty theft, and his brittle, tightly controlling mother, Barb Hanson (Felicity Huffman). They’ve come to Modesto from Arizona and Simi Valley respectively after their son has been murdered.
We meet the men who may have been involved in the killing, a heavily tattooed low-level hoodlum named Hector Tonz (Richard Cabral); meth addict Carter (Elvis Nolasco), doing whatever he can to score drugs for himself and his runaway teenage girlfriend, Aubry (Caitlin Gerard); and a young teenager named Tony Gutierrez (Johnny Ortiz), who is suffocating under the strict rule of his dad, Alonzo (Benito Martinez).
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As the investigation proceeds, the characters reveal more and more about themselves, in some cases belying our earlier assumptions of who and what they are. Eve and Tom Carlin (Penelope Ann Miller and W. Earl Brown), the parents of Matt’s comatose wife, Gwen (Kira Pozehl), at first seem to be everything Matt’s parents are not: a strongly united, deeply religious couple. The more they learn about their daughter and her marriage, the more that picture begins to fall apart.
The ice-cold vortex of the drama is Barb Hanson, a woman who blames the rest of the world for what has happened to her son and for what has happened to her throughout her life. Like Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” she has no regard for human frailty in anyone, including herself. When she falls apart after one of the court hearings and castigates Carter’s devout Muslim sister (Regina King), she sheds a few icy tears, not for her deceased son, but because she has lost control for a brief moment. For Barb, losing control is almost a sin.
Barb Hanson is racist. If you met her in Simi Valley, you might not think so. In fact, if you suggested she was prejudiced, she might even be shocked. But Matt’s murder and the fact that the suspects are black and Latino have shown her for what she is. She uses expressions such as “you people” and believes that the charges against her son’s murderers should include the special circumstances proviso: If two white men had murdered a young black or Latino man, she is sure it would be considered a hate crime.
Having lost his wife nine years earlier to heart failure, Alonzo is trying to raise Tony and his sister, Jenny (Gleendilys Inoa), by himself while he struggles to keep his auto body shop going. At some point, no doubt, he believed that being a strict father was good for his children, but somewhere along the line, his fear that they would fall in with the wrong crowd has made him a petty tyrant. He’s forgotten that being a parent isn’t just about discipline; it’s also about love and understanding.
Carter’s sister, Aliyah, is an unshakably devout Muslim, and is willing to help her brother with bail money, but only if he abandons his white girlfriend, Aubry, and follows the teachings of Islam.
The performances are almost universally brilliant, in your face and shattering, from Hutton’s broken middle-aged man unable to catch a break, to Carter’s jumpy drug addict, to the brittle sanctimony of Miller and Brown.
But even greater than all of these performances, and others, is Huffman’s Barb Hanson. The mother of the slain man is impossible to like. We can easily imagine how much her ex-husband felt the sting of her disapproval. Nothing he did was good enough, but, by the same token, nothing her son Matt did was good enough either. Only in retrospect does she assign worthiness to her dead son – not just because of profound loss but because it’s the only way Barb can avoid accepting her own blame for what happened to him. Huffman is simply monumental in the role.
The world of “American Crime” is rife with prejudice and self-righteousness, more than enough to go around. And that, we inevitably conclude, just may be the most destructive crime of all.