Sunday 16 June 2019

It would be a crime to miss out on this compelling drama

AMERICAN CRIME - ABC's "American Crime" stars Felicity Huffman as Barb Hanlon and Timothy Hutton as Russ Skokie. (ABC/Bob D'Amico)

THERE’S a danger that American Crime, which began on RTE2 on Sunday a mere three days after making its debut on US network ABC, could very easily slip under a lot of viewers’ radars. For one thing, there’s that slightly misleading title.

It’s unremarkable enough to lull some people into thinking it might be just another of those run-of-the-mill, largely episodic crime franchises that mainstream US television churns out with effortless ease, and usually to rapidly diminishing returns.

And then there’s the eccentric scheduling. RTE2 has long had an excellent record of beating the British terrestrial broadcasters to the hottest new American dramas and comedies. It was three full weeks ahead of Channel 4 with the first few seasons of Homeland, for example, and had The Americans long before ITV. It also screens the latest episodes of The Big Bang Theory shortly after their US broadcast and weeks before they turn up on E4.

But putting American Crime on at the less-than-friendly time of 9.55pm on Sundays strikes me as a little perverse and even self-defeating.

It runs the risk of potential viewers missing out on it, which would be a shame. Even at this early stage, American Crime is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing drama series of the year.

As that deceptively ordinary title suggests, there’s a crime at the heart of the story: the brutal murder in Modesto, California of a war veteran called Matt Skokie during a home invasion in which his wife, Gwen, is also assaulted, sexually as well as physically, and ends up on life-support. As yet, we haven’t seen what actually happened

The drama of the attack is conveyed first through the voices on a 911 call and later through the police summoning Matt’s grief-stricken father Russ, the always excellent Timothy Hutton, to identify the body.

This wouldn’t be the first series to begin with a murder and trace the journey through the legal system; the ahead-of-its-time Murder One was doing that 20 years ago. American Crime is notable for other reasons, however.

The murder is really a springboard to explore the complex issues of race, class and gender facing modern America, seen from the viewpoints of various characters.

One of these is Russ’s ex-wife Barb, played with unflinching ferocity by Felicity Huffman. Barb is presented as a hateful racist from the outset. When Russ tells her the police suspect “a Hispanic” murdered their son, she immediately snaps: “An illegal?”

We gradually learn that Barb’s bitter prejudice stems from Russ, a recovering gambling addict, squandering everything they had, forcing her to raise their two sons alone in a public housing project. “A white woman and her two children,” she rages, “do you know what those people did to us?”

As the story fans out, we meet other characters caught in the orbit of the killing. There’s the Hispanic thief who’s picked up for using the murder victim’s credit card, and the Hispanic teenager, the son of an honest, hard-working garage owner, who loaned one of his father’s cars to the thief the night Matt was killed.

There’s also a pitiable black man – a junkie who lives with his white girlfriend (something Barb surely wouldn’t approve of) – who finds himself arrested for the murder.

American Crime, which is created, written and directed by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay and is the only black showrunner working in US television, is brave, ambitious and challenging. It’s the closest thing you’ll see to drama as state-of-the-nation address.

It also proves the cable channels don’t have all the dramatic aces up their sleeves.

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