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American Crime: “Episode One”

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Of all the things that American Crime gets right about the prevailing culture of the country (and there are several) perhaps nothing is as spot on as its take on on empathy. Through out the pilot, characters plead their case to anyone who will listen. They talk about the lot they have drawn and how difficult it is, that they deserved better than what they got. And as unifying as this message is, it’s nothing compared to the correlating attitude that shadows their pleas: No one has any interest in extending empathy to anyone else.


American Crime is an ensemble drama, a throwback to a time when network television was interested in tackling serious issues in a more serious fashion than the “ripped from the headlines” fare so often utilized in the modern era. And because of its choice to take an unrelenting look at race relations, the drug war, and family dynamics, it can sometimes become a deeply uncomfortable show to watch. Its characters are often deeply unlikable and the show repeatedly chooses to lean into that discomfort instead of pulling back and offering redemption, no matter how cursory.

As it stands after a single episode, the series revolves around a single crime, the alleged murder of a young, All-American veteran, the assault of his ex-beauty queen wife, and the accompanying robbery. Brought into the fray by these events are not only the parents of both victims, but four separate suspects (and in some cases, their loved ones), all imprisoned for their involvement, ranging from addicts to dealers to gang members to innocent high schoolers, with a single unifying feature: they are all men of color.


The series seems unafraid to get it’s hands dirty and muck about in the ugliest parts of America’s current social state. In the wake of the events of Ferguson and beyond, it’s hard not to notice how trigger-happy officers are in gunning down a suspect in a parking lot, despite having no indication that he was a physical threat or how the police have no issue beginning interrogation on a (potential) minor without the presence of a guardian or a lawyer. But the show isn’t even satisfied with surface examples of racism and digs even deeper into the subtle politics of class. Barb Hanlon, played vituperatively by Felicity Huffman, is both the most nuanced and the most blatant about her prejudices. Upon hearing that the main suspect in her son Matt’s murder, her references to the person quickly devolve into “illegal” and “some Mexican” but more interestingly is when in fighting with her ex-husband Russ (Timothy Hutton) she rails on about how difficult it was to raise their sons in public housing with “those people” and how awfully they were treated for being white. There is loathing there for racial diversity, yes, but also toward herself, her situation, and a life that forced her to spend some of it poor.

And it’s not just Caucasians saddled with that insidious bias. Alonzo Gutierrez (Benito Martinez) speaks at length about how his son Tony (Johnny Ortiz) was raised right, that they came into the country correctly, legally, and how he would surely cooperate with police. Even within the Hispanic community, this rift exists. No one is united. The white people blame the Hispanics. The legal immigrants blame the illegal immigrants. The illegal immigrants blame the drug dealers. The drug dealers blame the drug users. And the more information that gets revealed, the less clear things become.

But the pilot is nowhere near perfect. Things get clunky and exposition is an ever-lurking necessary evil. In particular, there’s an entire subplot centered around a meth-addled Romeo and Juliet that is a complete non-starter. Contextual clues seem to imply that the woman used to be a successful model that has fallen upon hard times (like, sexual favors for cash hard times). Her boyfriend is loving and caring and tries to provide (drugs) for her as best he can but also may/may not have committed the murder that precipitated the entire show. If nothing else, the storyline provides another outlet to examine the preferential treatment towards certain skin colors, as upon being taken into custody, it’s assumed that the (white) woman’s injuries came at the hands of her dark-skinned boyfriend, as opposed to the fact that she’s an obvious junkie who had plenty of other opportunities for violence to befall her. (In this case, getting jumped at a party for her drugs.)

Ultimately, though, the show makes a strong entrance into the television landscape, making it clear that it’s much more akin to being TV’s version of Traffic than it is TV’s version of Crash. More than anything American Crime is concerned with bringing light to a certain hard truths, things that other shows don’t have the interest or the wherewithal to address. Specifically, the show is interested in driving home the fact that if you are focused solely on your own pain and your own lot, how life has wronged you specifically, you will never be able to see people around you clearly, even those that you think you know. This much is clear by the pilot’s final scene, in which Russ learns that upon searching his dead son’s house, the police found hidden stores of crystal meth and marijuana, in amounts that almost certainly belie an intent to sell. Russ stammers, insisting that he knew his son better than that, that he’d never be a drug dealer. But if American Crime has anything to teach us it’s that we’re all too focused on our own struggle to really know anyone at all.


Stray observations:

  • Welcome to weekly reviews of American Crime. The show is getting pretty uniformly fantastic praise across the board so hopefully we’ll be able to drive enough traffic to keep the conversation going for all 11 episodes.
  • The performances here are pretty top notch, especially considering how histrionic they could be.
  • Runner-up for Miss Modesto might be the saddest accomplishment I’ve ever heard of.
  • In case you missed it, the party that *checks notes* Aubry gets jumped at is right by some train tracks. Clearly, she was on the wrong side. GET IT? WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS?! #symbolism
  • Of all the things I liked about the episode, it was the unspoken touches that I found the most effective. The class politics at work in showing a Hispanic woman cleaning outside Barb’s hotel room, Barb’s Coach-branded glasses.
  • Though we didn’t see him much in this episode, it’s nice to see W. Earl Brown play against type as a clean-cut, gentle dad, as opposed to rough-around-the-edges roles he often populates.
  • If that grade seems low, I’ve been assured that the show only improves with each episode, so while it’s a HIGH B, I wanted to leave a little room for improvement.