Even before he won an Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley had an interesting, eclectic career. He's written for sitcoms (“The John Larroquette Show”) and dramas (“Third Watch”) and even produced Wanda Sykes' talk show. A decade before “Empire,” he created a hip-hop industry drama for UPN called “Platinum.” As a novelist, he's written science-fiction (“Those Who Walk in Darkness”), pulp (“Everybody Smokes in Hell”) and historical fiction (“A Conversation with the Mann”), among other genres. Whether by design, opportunity, or simply a sense of restlessness – one of the most vivid characters in any of his books is Brain Nigger Charlie from “The Drift,” a hobo who can no longer relate to the anchored middle-class existence from which he descended – Ridley has avoided being pigeonholed in a business that tries to do that with everyone, and particularly with artists of color.
That sense of ambition and motion is on display throughout “American Crime,” the new miniseries he cashed in his “12 Years a Slave” acclaim to create. (It debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m. on ABC.) The title connotes something grand – not just a mere mystery, but one that will tell us something profound about The Way We Live Now – and ABC's marketing has essentially sold it as the most important TV show of our lifetimes. It's a burden no new series should have to shoulder, but also one that Ridley seems eager to try to lift.
The end result (I've seen the first four episodes) falls short of either Ridley's aims or ABC's hype, but it's interesting nonetheless. It is didactic and grim to an extreme, with one sour-faced character after another monologuing about God, or race, or the existential nature of victimhood. But Ridley has also gathered a terrific cast and given them meaty characters to tear into, and as director of the pilot episode, he gives the show an engrossing visual style that makes it look unlike anything on network TV (though evocative of several things you can find on cable, like “Rectify”).
The eponymous crime is a home invasion in the city of Modesto, California, which leaves a young man dead and his wife in critical condition from what appears to be both assault and rape. The story quickly expands to involve his estranged parents (played by Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman), her devout Christian ones (W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller), a local mechanic (Benito Martinez) whose son (Johnny Ortiz) may know something about the murder, a pair of meth addicts (Elvis Nolasco, Caitlin Gerard) more concerned with their hazy love affair than being implicated in the crime, the male suspect's Muslim sister (Regina King), and an undocumented immigrant (Richard Cabral) walking around with the dead man's credit cards.
Though the question of who exactly committed the crime and why is left a mystery, the police and prosecutors are barely more than the adults in a “Charlie Brown” cartoon. What “American Crime” is primarily interested in is how this heinous act exposes and/or confounds everyone's attitudes about race, class and religion. And these attitudes are expressed in the bluntest, most expository fashion possible. When Martinez gives an interview trying to distinguish hard-working Mexican-Americans from what he views as disreputable criminals, his daughter tells him, “You wish you were white so they would like you better!” (Later, when he has to paint over profane graffiti prompted by said interview, he takes a moment to study the white paint he got on his hands, considering whether her words are true.)
Nowhere is the show's determination to grapple with these issues loudly and without nuance more obvious than in Huffman's character, whose difficult backstory – involving divorce, poverty and more – has curdled her into someone with deep grudges against her ex-husband, poor people, racial minorities and basically everyone she encounters. Told that the police are looking for a suspect of Hispanic origin, she snarls, “Some illegal?” Later, when a black man is arrested for the crime, she pushes for the prosecutors to charge him with a hate crime. Huffman gives a fully-committed performance to a character whose unrelenting bitterness quickly makes her scenes a chore to get through, even as Ridley clearly wants to inspire debate through the bombastic things that she, or Martinez, or Brown's indignant fundamentalist say.
In that way, the sledgehammer force of the dialogue reminds me of a very different writer in Ryan Murphy, who has his own anthology miniseries (which “American Crime” would become in success) with “American” in the title. With both “American Horror Story” and “Glee” (and before them, “Nip/Tuck”), Murphy likes to provoke by any means necessary, figuring the conversation and emotions he incites are worth more than whatever shortcuts he took to get there. But where Murphy's work can trend toward melodrama and/or camp, Ridley here is aiming for something very sober and high-minded. This is a dour, humorless show about a vicious, devastating event, and “American Crime” never lets you forget that for a moment. It's an honest approach to the material, but also a wearying one.
The two movies with Ridley's name on them that got the highest acclaim were “12 Years,” where there was a dispute over how much of the script he wrote and how much was by director Steve McQueen; and “Three Kings,” where David O. Russell threw out so much of the original script (where, among other things, the George Clooney character was black) that Ridley ultimately only got a Story By credit on the finished product. In reading and watching his work, and in hearing him speak, he comes across as a guy with limitless ideas and a sometimes limited sense of how to best implement them. This show is all his vision, and it's the kind of freedom you get when you just won an Oscar for your screenplay, yet it feels like something where a strong collaborator – even just someone willing to play devil's advocate on things like Huffman's character – would have been immensely valuable.
And yet, for all the things that bothered me about “American Crime” – things that place it a few rungs below the kinds of complex cable dramas it clearly aspires to be like – I found myself absorbed in much of it. Not as a murder mystery, or a legal drama, or even a treatise on race in America today, but as a collection of character studies. This is a great cast Ridley has assembled, and even if the characters often speak in position papers rather than dialogue, they also feel like lived-in human beings. Huffman, Martinez, Hutton, Brown, King and others embrace the material – if nothing else, the heightened nature of the dialogue gives some of them license to underplay a bit, because the subtext and text are already the same thing – and had me interested in seeing what happens with these people, if not what the resolution of the case is.
As a director, Ridley shoots most of the show under an almost blinding level of desert light, which neatly divorces it from the flat house style of ABC's other dramas, and which lends a sense of rawness to the proceedings. I particularly like the way he shoots and edits the scenes involving one or both of the tweakers, who insist they're madly in love with each other even as everyone around them assumes their feelings are simply a creation of the meth. It's hard in 2015 to find a novel way to visually present the experience of using and being addicted to drugs – and, in this case, of becoming addicted to the person with whom you use said drugs – but those sequences do an excellent job of conveying the mental states of both characters without requiring quite so much speechifying. (Her fixation on collecting ads in magazines featuring interracial couples could come across as heavy-handed, but it also plays as a specific character beat.) Nolasco and Gerard are two of the lesser-known members of the cast, but their scenes, whether together or apart, stand out.
Usually, when the networks try to play in this kind of cable territory, you get a complete mess like “The Slap” or ABC's other mystery event series of this spring, “Secrets and Lies.” “American Crime” is many things – some good, some frustrating – but it's not a mess at all. It's the work of someone who's been in the business a long time, who finally has the power and prestige to do a project exactly the way he wants to, and has a very specific aesthetic for the visuals, the language and everything else. The parts of the show that feel like homework clearly come from the same place as the parts that work very well.
Even though I've liked a lot of Ridley's work in the past, the history of this kind of show and the oppressive marketing campaign had me practically dreading “American Crime” when I started the screener. But while I can't say I took a ton of pleasure in watching four hours of it, I also found myself admiring it – not just the ambition of subject and style, but the execution of individual pieces of it. It's a big swing for ABC and for Ridley, and if it's not a home run, it's also far from a big whiff.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org