Should You Take A Ride With American Crime?

Is this 'prestige drama' whipping down the highway or grinding its gears?

What Is This Thing?

During a home invasion robbery in the Central California city of Modesto, decorated war veteran Matt Skokie is shot and killed, and his wife Gwen is (maybe?) sexually assaulted and left comatose. As the families of the victims work through their grief, police identify and arrest the suspects in the case, including the (developmentally delayed?) son of legal (he emphasizes this a lot) Mexican immigrant Alonzo Gutiérrez, meth addict Carter Nix, and soon-to-be deported-back-to-Mexico gang member Hector Tontz. Matt's mom, Barb, believes that her son could do no wrong, and is fixated on the racial angle of the case: her son is white, and the suspects are Hispanic and black. But as the investigation continues and more information emerges, things start to get messy.

When Is It On?

Thursdays at 10 PM on ABC.

Why Was It Made Now?

As Sarah D. Bunting noted in her coverage of similarly-themed crime drama Secrets and Lies, March is when networks drop their misfit shows. And they've had plenty of time to figure that one out: originally announced way back in 2013, the show reportedly began production nearly a year ago to the day.

What's Its Pedigree?

It is very fancy! American Crime was written, directed and produced by John Ridley, who you might recall as the man who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 12 Years A Slave. It stars Felicity Huffman as Barb, Timothy Hutton as her estranged ex-husband Russ, and Penelope Ann Miller as the comatose girl's mom. Regina King guest-stars as the murder suspect's controversially-Muslim sister, and Lili Taylor appears as a survivors/victims rights advocate.


I don't believe that every show has to feature multi-dimensional characters to be engaging, nor do I believe that every crime show needs to realistically portray drugs, the correctional system, or human behavior to be good or enjoyable. But this show has none of these things, at least not in the first four episodes I saw. Every character has only one note, a note that merely increases or decreases in volume. There are massive, to put it kindly, misunderstandings by the show's writer on how the legal system in California works, from the prosecution of crimes to the adult and juvenile correctional system. (For example, accused criminals freely wander county jail halls, with no supervision? Yeah, no.)

And then there's the whole thing where meth addicts appear to calm down and relax (accompanied by romantic, slow-mo hallucinations) only after they get their smoke on. Are you sure you're not thinking of heroin, show?

There are also huge, unquestioned-by-the-characters plot holes that I'll avoid elucidating for spoiler reasons, but if you watch this show, you won't be able to miss them.

Oh, and by the way, Stanislaus County (that's where Modesto is) Sheriff Adam Christianson isn't too impressed with the show, either, saying that "It's a sensationalistic, inaccurate media portrayal of fictitious crime in our community that exploits victims of crime and our community. Given the challenges we face in public safety such as addiction, mental illness, the unemployment rate and quality-of-life issues, you have to ask yourself the question, why Modesto?"

More than all the structural, factual, and "why Modesto?" issues is the fact that it's not very entertaining. After all, there are plenty of unrealistic shows that are fun: see pretty much anything that Shonda Rhimes has ever had a hand in, for starters. American Crime, however, is downright unpleasant, and not because it's "too real" or whatever. None of the characters are remotely likeable (worst among them is Barb, who seems like a robot programmed to only speak in internet comments), nor are any well-drawn or believable enough to be interesting. And the plotting is...ponderous.

Add to that some strange, faux-artsy touches like random scenes that go nowhere (Ross helps a customer at the garden center at which he works to find a hose!) and strange, jumpy cutting during some pieces of dialogue, and the effect ends up being, I hate to say it, pretty standard student film bullshit.


This show intends to tackle the Big Issues of race, addiction, faith, and violence, and that's to be applauded. More shows should! And it's only ten episodes, so if you decide to commit to it, you're not on the hook for that long.


American Crime is neither good enough to engage your superego, provocative enough to be a next-day watercooler talker, nor trashy and fun enough to engage your id. We can all do better.

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