There’s no shortage of crime series out there that show members of law enforcement following evidence, questioning suspects and chasing down bad guys before ending the episode at the bar, discussing what they learned that week.
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“American Crime” critiques these shows through its very existence, exploring the idea that crime is more than a fantasy —it’s a reality faced by actual people on a day-to-day basis. Creator John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) doesn’t flinch from showing the harsh emotional reality endured as a result of violence and crime.
The show follows the aftermath of a home invasion which leaves war-veteran Matt Skokie (Grant Merritt, “Revolution”) dead and his wife Gwen in a critical condition. The episode begins with Matt’s father, Russ (played by Academy Award Winner Timothy Hutton, “Leverage”), waking in the middle of the night to a phone call every parent dreads: asking him to fly to Modesto, Calif. to identify the body of his son.
Russ’s reaction to seeing Matt in the morgue is a scene shown in all the promos, but only when watching the episode live is the pain truly raw and more real. The camera stays focused on Russ in a tightly framed close-up of him in front of a window with blinds drawn – a male voiceover narrating, “Someone inside the room is gonna pull the blind back. You’re gonna see a table with a body on it. I need you to tell me if the body you see is your son. Let me know when you’re ready.” As Russ remains fixated on the blind yet to be pulled, the camera does not move, but stays focused on Hutton’s character as he gazes absentmindedly at the covered glass. The man behind him commands, “Go ahead,” and then two latex covered hands appear on the other side and pull back the blind to illuminate Hutton’s face. We do not see Matt’s dead body – only the impact it has on Russ.
Like “Breaking Bad,” “American Crime” is not for the faint of heart. It is a drama in the truest sense of the word, attacking the nerves — not just through graphic images of violence but with emotional ferocity.
In style and tone, the show feels reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and HBO’s “The Wire” as we branch off from Russ’s story into the other lives drawn into Ridley’s web. There’s Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”), who plays Matt’s mother and Russ’s ex-wife Barb, in a role that is sure to put Huffman at the front of the Emmy race for Best Supporting Actress.
There’s also Benito Martinez (“The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”) as Alonzo, an overly-protective father whose son Tony — played masterfully by newcomer Johnny Ortiz — is accidentally implicated in the murder and then arrested. Another newcomer is Elvis Nolasco (“Oldboy”), a drug addict in a relationship with the equally messed-up Aubrey, played by Caitlin Gerard (“The Social Network”). Richard Cabral (“The Counselor”) rounds out the cast as a criminal who may or may not have been responsible for Skokie’s murder.
Overall, the real star is John Ridley. Between comedies, comic books and the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” Ridley can now add showrunner to his already impressive résumé. With “American Crime,” he has built an epic tapestry woven with emotional performances, taut storytelling and a focus as urgent as this morning’s newspapers. “American Crime” is one of the most engrossing and impressive television pilots to be seen in quite a long time.