April 30, 2017

ShowbuzzDaily Season Finale Review: “American Crime”


John Ridley’s ABC anthology series AMERICAN CRIME has always worn its sackcloth and ashes in plain sight, but Season 3 was especially brutal.  It was eight hours of unceasing human misery, enough to make the insides curdle of even the most earnest devotee of serious TV drama.  Understandably, viewers fled, pushing the show’s ratings to lows that were microscopic for broadcast network television.  This season of American Crime wasn’t just about suffering; it was determined to make the audience suffer, too, and in that it found its mark.

There was the usual panoply of superb, deep-dive acting, from series rep players Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King (who’s won consecutive Emmys for her roles on the series), Benito Martinez, Richard Cabral and Lii Taylor, as well as newcomers like Sandra Oh, Janel Moloney, Dallas Roberts, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, and Mickaelle X. Bizet, but the performances were so uniformly grim that even their excellence blended together.  Previous seasons had at least dangled some semblance of mystery about the actions that were the literal explanations of the series title (although it was always clear that the words were more existential, a fundamental condemnation of American evil), offering a bit of genre drama.  In Season 3, there were plenty of crimes, but no mystery:  the migrant worker whose weary father (Martinez) searched for his fate had been murdered by a farm supervisor, and when the father killed the gunman, there wasn’t even a guilty jolt of pleasure in the revenge; the underage (and pregnant) sex worker (Mulvoy-Ten) was stabbed in the back of the head by another sex worker.  All of the characters with money were monstrous or at best ineffectual, while the rest were clay figures set up to be destroyed, psychologically if not physically, all of them victims of a capitalism that had become sociopathic.

The season finale, written by Executive Produer Julie Hebert and directed by Jessica Yu, remained true to American Crime‘s brand of depressing integrity.  In the show’s version of an M. Night Shyamalan twist, it was revealed that saintlike Haitian nanny Gabrielle (Bizet) was being physically abused by Clair (Taylor), the seemingly neurotic but decent wife of cruel Nicholas (Hutton), whose business was falling apart (thus all three were in one way or another collateral damage of the economic system).  The season’s two most idealistic characters were left corrupted:  social worker Kimara (King) extorted her one-time friend (Oh) into a better-paying job; and Jeanette (Huffman), genuinely concerned about the events at the migrant farm run by her husband’s (Roberts) family, forced herself to lie to the workers so that the family would allow her to take in the daughters of her sister (Moloney), who’d violated parole by failing a drug test.  The ghosts of the season’s murder victims looked on from the back of a courtroom in the final shots as one injustice after another was repeatedly handed down.

The events depicted in American Crime are true to real life, of course, and even more timely right now, and one has to respect the show’s determination to lay out its furious, miserable stories with little if any compromise.  But one also has to wonder whether Ridley and his team serve their message in the best way by driving away all but the tiniest prospective audience, providing not even the slightest dash of sweetener to go with their dose of bitter medicine.  It seems likely that ABC’s experiment with American Crime will end with this season, although the show has delivered for the network in terms of critical praise and awards, so another short order isn’t altogether impossible.  It would be nice to root for its return, but in truth it’s hard to do so if that would mean having to sit through another stern, implacable sermon of a season.



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."