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Emmy Wrap: Peter Biskind on How ‘American Crime’ Breaks the Network Mold

Almost everything about the series would have been unthinkable on broadcast television only a year ago

This story originally appeared in the Movies and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

Finally, the greening of the networks, at least ABC, where a few sprouts are poking up above the dry, arid soil. I’m thinking mainly of John Ridley‘s “American Crime,” a series unlike anything I’ve seen on network – or cable either, for that matter.
Almost everything about it would have made it persona non grata at a network as recently as a year ago. Finally, a show that’s about something, that resonates with American reality circa 2015 — Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. — without being, excepting one or two slips, preachy.

The crime in question is the home-invasion murder of a white Modesto war vet, and its tragic effects on the victim’s bitterly divorced parents (Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton), his wife’s folks (W. Earl Brown and Penelope Ann Miller), and the suspects: a black meth head (Elvis Nolasco), his white girlfriend (Caitlin Gerard), a Mexican-American teen (Johnny Ortiz), and a tattooed hustler (Richard Cabral, a former gangster turned rising actor). It presents a gallery of totally unlikable characters — whiny, self-pitying, lying, violent people, where the only good relationship is between two hardcore dopers. Even more difficult to get away with, the characters are not only unlikable, they are played by actors who either look like normal people — no detectives might be models — or are actually unattractive, some even hard to look at. And yet their humanity comes through.

Even the editing is unorthodox, with lots of flash cutaways, overlapping sound, sound and picture going their own separate ways. Those devices would get Ridley’s knuckles rapped in film school, but here they’re an index of how far the ABC seems willing to go to break the mold, and accept new, non-formulaic artisanal storytelling.

Of course, he gets away with a lot riding his strengths: spare, powerful scripts and smart direction that refuses to pander to the audience. Like Bennett Miller in “Foxcatcher,” he gets some of his strongest effects by withholding information with long shots where we don’t hear what’s being said, and this in a network series where conventional practice dictates overstating and underlining every plot point.

And of course, there are the stunning performances by all hands. I’ve always admired Felicity Huffman, but who knew she could deliver an Emmy-level impression of a relentlessly bitter, racist, but somehow sympathetic mother, the way she does here? The rest of the cast–especially Hutton, “House of Cards'” Benito Martinez (as the Mexican-American kid’s all too cop-trusting dad), Regina King (as the meth addict’s activist Nation of Islam sister), Gerard and Cabral — match her beat for beat.

I could have done without the pre-chewed message delivered by fatuous men of the cloth in the preamble to the finale, suggesting that Ridley didn’t trust his own narrative skills, but the rest of it is a knockout. “American Crime” proves that maybe, just maybe, the networks are responding to pressure from cable, pulling their heads out of the sand, and best of all, suggests that the TV renaissance isn’t over.

Peter Biskind is the author of six books, including “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” “Down and Dirty Pictures” and “Gods and Monsters.” He is a former editor in chief of American Film and executive editor of Premiere magazine, and is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

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Wrap Emmy magazine cover - Richard Cabral, American Crime

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