March 13, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Pilot + 1 Review: “American Crime”



A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on AMERICAN CRIME:  In Modesto, California, former serviceman Matt Skokie was murdered in his home, and his wife Gwen was viciously injured in the attack.  The lives of a number of people are deeply affected by the crime, including Matt’s miserably divorced parents Russ (Timothy Hutton) and Barb (Felicity Huffman), Gwen’s devout mother Eve (Penelope Ann Miller) and father Tom (W. Earl Brown), as well as those arrested for the attack:  Mexican-American teen Tony (Johnny Ortiz), the son of Alonzo (Benito Martinez), who may have unwittingly rented a car to the killers; the more experienced criminal Hector (Richard Cabral); and the pathetic meth-head lovers Carter (Elvis Nolasco) and Aubry (Caitlin Gerard), who may actually have committed the murder.  But all may not be as it seems, as the pilot ended with Russ being informed by the police that so much meth was found in Matt’s house that he must have been a dealer himself.

Episode 2:  American Crime uses almost no background musical score, giving it a stark feel that’s strikingly different from anything else on network television–its stripped-down quality is unusual even by cable standards.  Series creator John Ridley, who wrote and directed the episode (as he did the pilot), also used jump cuts, discontinuous editing and some lengthy static shots to accentuate the feeling of dislocation and a sense that normal television rules won’t apply.

Perhaps even more unusual for a series that revolves around a mystery, the show’s second hour hardly moved the plot forward at all, apart from a revelation in the last few minutes that rather than being raped, Gwen may have had consensual group sex the night of the murder.  Instead, the episode pressed more deeply on the events of the pilot and their reverberations among the characters, as Russ questioned a friend of Matt’s about possible drug ties (and got no answers), he and Barb had another nasty argument and Barb repeated her racist view of the Latino and black men under arrest (and more or less questioned the loyalties of a Latina police detective on the case), Tony and Alonzo suffered through Tony’s imprisonment, and Aubry–freed on probation–got her hands on some money and immediately started snorting it, distraught that Carter was still in jail.  The prevailing tone of the hour was wretchedness, and Ridley’s pacing made the passage of time, and the frustration it caused, palpable.

These are all daring choices, especially for a broadcast network series, and for now, they’re fascinating enough to make American Crime compelling, especially with the strong acting and provocative ideas that Ridley is offering.  At some point, though, the series will have to provide a version of entertainment value if it wants to hold viewers.  Even the most serious and celebrated of recent TV dramas, from The Wire to Homeland to House of Cards, have told stories with a measure of visceral appeal, and while American Crime had a fair start in the ratings last week, the Scandal audience it inherits is unlikely to be satisfied with abstract drama, whatever the quality.  There’s no question, however, that ABC and Ridley are attempting something genuinely different here, and quite admirable in its integrity.


PILOT + 1:  Uncompromising, Perhaps To A Fault


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."