In the course of watching too much television, we eventually become inured to almost all aspects of crime, particularly the lasting grief that accompanies a murder. We see so many of them (and solve so many of them) that they become meaningless.
“American Crime,” a strikingly good and wholly original series premiering Thursday night on ABC, is unique in that the last people it seems to be concerned with are homicide detectives, judges, prosecutors and practically anyone wearing a badge or sitting behind a desk. Those people are indeed present and essential to the story “American Crime” is setting out to tell in its thoughtful and emotionally complex 11 episodes, but this is mostly a show that is about real people caught up in a surreal process, none of whom emerges as the exclusive recipient of our sympathies — not even the parents of the victims.
The series, which is set in Modesto, Calif., makes an extraordinarily disciplined decision in its first four episodes to avoid depiction of the crime itself, which is first described as a suburban home invasion, during which a young man, a military veteran named Matt Skokie, is shot and killed, and his wife, Gwen, is sexually assaulted, beaten and left in a coma.
What’s most commendable about “American Crime” is also its most provocative and challenging aspect: It asks us to regard the relatives of the victims — as well as the victims themselves — with the same doubts and scrutiny we are accustomed to giving characters who happen to be behind bars as suspects, as well as their families and loved ones. We are asked to feel everyone’s pain, even that of the accused.
If this sounds dangerously close our era’s almighty sin of “blaming the victim,” then so be it; in each episode we learn something new that makes us reconsider all the conclusions we might have leaped to in previous episodes.
In this way, “American Crime,” created by John Ridley (whose many credits include a screenplay Oscar for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave”), can be viewed as a show that truly reflects a cultural moment, a fictional work that deals in some of the same ambiguities and conflicts that accompanied the recent rash of police shootings across the country. The series has little in common with last summer’s events in Ferguson, Mo., except in its remarkable ability to harness (or even subvert) a viewer’s prejudices about race, ethnicity, religion, crime, evidence and justice, as well as our ambivalence about the system’s efficacy.
In unraveling the Skokie murder case, “American Crime” spends a significant — equal seems to be the right word — amount of time building the story of its suspects.
Elvis Nolasco plays Carter Nix, a black drug addict who lives in romantic squalor with his girlfriend, Aubry (Caitlin Gerard). A gun in Carter’s possession is linked to the Skokie murder, and he is arrested, along with Aubry. Carter’s sister, Aliyah Shadeed (Regina King), a devout member of a Muslim congregation, offers her brother legal assistance if he’ll break things off with Aubry, who is white.
Two other suspects are charged with Carter: Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral), a drifer who fears extradition back to Mexico, is caught using one of Matt Skokie’s credit cards; meanwhile, a car believed to be used in the crime is connected to a seemingly innocent teenager, Tony Gutierrez (Johnny Ortiz), who rebels against the strict rules imposed by his father, Alonzo (Benito Martinez), who harbors a strong dislike for the thuggish gang culture he sees all across town.
In a more traditional following of mainstream television blueprints, Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman star as Matt Skokie’s long-divorced parents, Russ Skokie and Barb Hanlon. It is Russ, living in Arizona, who gets the middle-of-the-night call from Modesto police and flies there to identify Matt’s body. Barb arrives soon after, already livid that she wasn’t called first and still angry at Russ for leaving her years ago to raise two sons alone.
Barb also brings a fixed notion that whoever murdered her son is an animal who must be hunted and brought to swift justice at any cost; the fact that the suspects in custody are racial and ethnic minorities brings out Barb’s most frank and racist sentiments, which Huffman portrays with a determined anguish. Hutton, as Russ, returns to the deep well of sadness first seen when he was a young man in 1980’s “Ordinary People,” only this time he’s portraying the grief of a father and recovered gambling addict who feels he failed his children.
Tensions rise when Gwen’s parents, Tom and Eve Carlin (W. Earl Brown and Penelope Ann Miller), disagree with Barb’s plans for Matt’s burial; Barb, in turn, thinks that the Carlins aren’t engaged enough in the prosecution’s case. Both sets of parents are in for startling revelations about the lives their children were leading.
“American Crime” is an intentionally exasperating viewing experience; sooner or later, every character does something that’s just flat-out wrong. And yet I can’t remember the last time a network drama had my rapt attention and respect on this many levels at once. I’m dying to know where Ridley and his actors will take the story next , but I’m also waiting for them to tell us what we’re supposed to feel. My hunch is that we’ll never quite know the answer to that.
USA’s 10-episode suspense thriller “Dig,” which also premieres Thursday and comes up lacking in both suspense and thrills, stars Jason Isaacs (“Awake”) as FBI agent Peter Connelly, who takes a posting in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, mostly to escape the grief of losing his daughter. Peter meets an American archeology student who reminds him of her; when the young woman turns up dead, Peter is soon identified by local police as the main suspect. There is much chasing through narrow streets and into ancient tunnels beneath the city.
At the same time, in remote New Mexico, a doomsday cult is raising cloned boys for a creepy interpretation of bar mitzvah traditions, while in frigid Norway, a group of Orthodox Jews is delighted at the arrival of a pure red-haired calf, a signifier of apocalypse. Protecting the calf becomes a life-threatening duty.
“Dig” bears the telltale scars of hack TV assembly — a little of this, a little of that, all of it meant to tie together eventually for the viewer who can endure all the hammy setup and self-seriousness (and stale ideas) seen in the first few episodes.
“Dig,” which is co-created by Gideon Raff (“Homeland”) and Tim Kring (“Heroes”), comes across like a TV show too infatuated with whatever concept it originally pitched to the network. It has a misguided sense that it is taking viewers on an exotic adventure, but watching it is like being stuck on a croweded tour bus with too many stops on the itinerary. Just go, already.
(one hour) premieres Thursday
at 10 p.m. on ABC.
(90 minutes) premieres Thursday
at 10 p.m. on USA.