"People see me how they see me and that's all they see," says Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral) in the eighth episode of "American Crime," the ABC series that is quietly and brilliantly taking apart the prime-time crime drama. Too quietly, it seems; with the show's ratings sinking every week, some voices in the entertainment press are already describing the cancellation of "American Crime" as inevitable. That would be a dismaying end for one of the few truly ambitious, innovative and grown-up dramas on network or cable TV.
The story begins with the eponymous crime in Modesto, California: A home invasion that leaves Matt Skokie, a young veteran, dead and his wife, Gwen, barely alive. Matt's long-divorced parents, Barb and Russ, arrive in town. Gwen's parents, devout Christians, haunt the hospital. The rebellious teenage son of a widowed Latino auto shop owner admits that he rented the family car -- spotted fleeing the scene -- to Hector, who (we will later learn), is on the lam from a murder charge in Mexico. Hector fingers a black man named Carter Nix as the shooter, so the cops arrest him, separating Carter from Aubrey, his white addict girlfriend.
That's a lot of story lines to keep in play, and I know a few people who bailed on "American Crime" a couple of episodes in because the characters seemed too broadly sketched and the structure too reminiscent of pompous prestige-cinema offerings like "Traffic." But "American Crime" show runner John Ridley -- he won an Oscar for his screenplay for "12 Years a Slave" -- has an aversion to moral preaching and a lot more than just two hours to spin out this yarn. To paraphrase Hector, if stereotypes are all you see, you're missing a lot.
The most original thing about "American Crime" is that not one bit of the story is told from the perspective of a cop, a lawyer, a private detective or a sleuth of any kind. Every major character has a personal rather than a professional connection to the crime. Each is someone whose life has been wrecked by the murder and its aftermath. These people know next to nothing about the investigation, and whatever their role in the case, they all find the legal system to be a baffling and indifferent labyrinth full of booby traps and stone walls.
This is how most of us experience the world of criminal justice, not as a puzzle to be solved every week or an opportunity to emote over a timely "issue," but as a grueling ordeal following on the heels of the worst things that ever happen to us. Take the moment when the police finally allow Timothy Hutton's ramshackle Russ and his surviving son into Matt and Gwen's house, where the murder occurred. It's a scene in which two men look at bloodstains on the wall, something that happens on TV every night, typically with one of the characters cooly explaining how the spatter pattern can be read as a clue. In "American Crime," however, it has an entirely different and wrenching effect, because what Russ reads in that blood is the horrible truth of his son's murder.
For Barb, Matt's death is the last and most brutal in a series of blows that began decades earlier, with the discovery that Russ, a gambling addict, had blown through all the family's money and, finally, deserted her and two young sons. Barb is the marquee character in "American Crime"; her racial paranoia and Felicity Huffman's coiled, jabbing performance fill every scene she's in with a spiky tension.
But as unpleasant as Barb is, the series has given her a back story that does her justice. "Do you know what they did to my sons?" she demands of Gwen's parents when they lobby to have Matt buried in Oakland. After Russ bailed, Barb and her boys lived in a mostly black housing project in that city. It's clear that she has funneled all the raging energy of her adult life into fighting for her kids and that somewhere along the way she became stuck in that embattled posture, convinced that the whole world fully intends to trample them. Matt's murder, unsurprisingly, sends her over the edge, transforming her into an engine of vengeance. In the eighth and most recent episode, Barb is shocked to learn that even the victims'-rights advocate who has been her staunchest ally has come to regard her as a racist.
That's how "American Crime" works, by presenting a character in a way that invites snap judgment, only to rotate the perspective with each episode, adding depth with every click. At first, the romance of Carter and Aubrey registers as one of the rare redemptive relationships in the series; the pair liked to tear out magazine photos of interracial couples from fashion magazines and gaze at them rapturously as they loll on a mattress in their dingy, littered room. When Carter's sister, Aliyah, a righteous Muslim convert, offers to help him get out of jail, she insists that in return he break all ties with Aubrey, speaking of "them" in a manner uncomfortably similar to the way Barb talks about blacks. "She's bad for you," Aliyah insists, placing herself in direct opposition to true love, never a smart move in American pop culture.
Yet Aliyah is right, Aubrey is bad for Carter, as he learns when the pair make an ill-fated attempt to jump his bail. For all her time on the streets, Aubrey, a child of privilege, doesn't really understand just how dire the consequences of her actions could be. Yet the pair are truly devoted to each other, so their love never loses its beauty, even as you watch the hope slowly drain from Carter's face during their drive up the coast. Meanwhile, Aliyah's sanctimony softens and by the time last week's episode rolled around, the scenes between the two siblings have become the most moving in the series. Elvis Nolasco and Regina King are so luminous in these roles that they can reduce me to tears simply by looking at each other across a jailhouse table.
Every story line in "American Crime" has blossomed in this way, offering a glimpse of the secret ways a marriage works or how a good boy might find relief in bad company. It becomes richer and richer week by week, never stooping to cheap tricks or melodrama. When it cites current events -- such as a protest reminiscent of those held in Ferguson -- it always opts for an intimate and visceral perspective, rather than a lecture. If the series has any message (and part of its power is that it seems uninterested in polemics) it's "Here's how it feels to be part of something like this."
So why hasn't the series won more viewers and acclaim? Its subject is dark, but no more so than many other crime shows. Most likely its lack of a single central character, a hero or antihero to root for, however ambivalently, is to blame. Like "The Wire," "American Crime" is about people caught up in and tossed around by forces beyond their control. Ranged against each them is not an easily hatable bad guy, but a disembodied system. Yet "The Wire" was still full of jaunty cops and coolly clever drug kingpins, while "American Crime" is about people like us, bumbling and often blind.
Most successful television incorporates some element of fantasy -- your marital troubles get mythologized into organized crime dramas or espionage intrigues, your economic despair can be parlayed into an outlaw's saga. "American Crime" just wants to show us what we really are, how beautiful we are, and how terrible. Maybe we've got no stomach for that. A couple of weeks ago rumors surfaced that Ridley has signed on to run a new series, this one for Marvel. It will feature a superhero, naturally, and it will surprise no one if that superhero is female, say, or black. No doubt this will be cheered as a glorious advance; why shouldn't everyone's adolescent dreams of mastery be catered to? Perhaps it will even be a hit. But don't expect those of us who have loved "American Crime" to join the celebration.