The challenge of ABC's new drama, American Crime, is right there in its title. This is no ordinary police procedural about an ornery detective or two, nor is it a murder-mystery: This is the story of a specifically "American" crime. And while there should probably be a total moratorium on titling any film and television product with that particular prefix, the term is at least appropriate here—the show’s writer John Ridley aims to tell a sweeping story that reflects on the rampant racial prejudices of the U.S. judicial system. The pilot episode, which airs Thursday night, centers around the brutal murder of a white military veteran in Modesto, California, and how it draws his divorced parents, a working-class Mexican American family, and an African American drug addict into a plot that’s more complicated than it initially seems.
American Crime is not particularly easy television, making it a risky bet for ABC from a ratings standpoint. It replaces the pulpy How to Get Away with Murder, the network’s biggest breakout hit this season, and while it’s another crime drama, the two shows are night and day: Ridley is taking a grim, realistic look at the legal system, while HTGAWM relied on a high-octane, soap-opera feel. American Crime’s March launch date and weighty subject matter suggest the network is after something even more elusive than high ratings: a real prestige drama. And it might have found one. American Crime has the weighty tone and packaging of the kind of Emmy-magnet limited series usually found on cable. It helps to have Ridley on as director; the TV veteran recently won an Academy Award for adapting the 12 Years a Slave screenplay.
To its credit, the stylistically gritty American Crime avoids being manipulative at every turn: It has a spare musical score and cuts between its story threads with little exposition, taking time to let the facts trickle out. No character seems automatically evil or steeped in cartoonish racism—the most obviously prejudiced is the murder victim's mother, Barb (Felicity Huffman), who seems jumps to assume a Latino suspect is "an illegal," and quickly goes to the press when she feels the police isn't acting decisively enough.
Huffman is the strongest cog in a solid cast, which includes a bedraggled Timothy Hutton as her ex-husband and Benito Martinez (The Shield) as the protective father of teenager Tony (Johnny Ortiz), who becomes the first suspect in the murder. Each character has his or her own angle and theory on what happened, and perhaps most refreshingly, the cops aren't the protagonists (The Killing this is not).
Still, American Crime's other major challenge is its murder-mystery roots—no matter how seriously Ridley approaches the subject matter, he can't bypass the show's genre trappings entirely. Much about the concept feels almost too depressing to take, a fact ABC has leaned into with its advertising, focusing on Hutton having to identify his son's body and sobbing afterwards, or a glassy-eyed Huffman firing a gun at a range. The biggest surprise of the pilot is that for all its bleakness, it manages to tell a gripping story, mostly because of the Rashomon-like structure that parcels out snippets of information from each character's perspective. One might see the pilot's final revelation coming from far off, but it's still a twist, one delivered with the appropriate thudding score largely absent for the rest of the episode.
Overall, such cop-show dramatics are kept to a minimum, and American Crime happily skirts an even more tiresome sub-genre: the Hollywood lecture on racism. Crash this is not, either: There's no character who walks into a room spouting epithets just to make sure the audience gets how bad he is, and there's no grand lesson that its less sympathetic characters will learn to cure them of their monstrousness. American Crime is grappling with the subtext that becomes text in a high-profile case, from the vantage points of the victims, the suspects, the press, and the bureaucracy. Even the most gripping scene is chillingly diplomatic: Young Tony is pulled over and taken to the precinct because he's driving a car that was spotted by the crime scene; the detectives are polite and respectful as they ask him a few questions with no lawyer or parent present, promising that his father will be there soon.
There's no naked prejudice on display, but there's a threatening atmosphere from the very beginning, as well as moments where the cops make subtle assumptions that seem innocuous enough but still stick out (thinking Tony's absent mother flew the coop, when she in fact died of a heart ailment, for example). Huffman's character makes similar leaps of logic that are almost forgivable, in isolation, as the easy answers sought by a grieving mother.
American Crime's real potential will likely reveal itself in the coming episodes if it's able to tie these moments together into a portrayal of a fractured society in a way that doesn't feel didactic or facile. And while the show may not emerge as a ratings juggernaut for ABC, there's a chance viewers will embrace its nuanced, if difficult, story in a country where nuanced discussions about racism and its effects aren't easy to come by.