‘American Crime’ Premiere ‘Episode 1’ Recap: An Examination of a Hyperreal America

ABC’s new series American Crime (created by John Ridley, who wrote 12 Years a Slave) is not something you expect to see on the national broadcast stations. It isn’t a cookie cutter crime drama that focuses on a different crime each week and the cops who solve those crimes. Instead it seems to be trying to tell a different story, one which focuses on the inherently flawed but not necessarily evil criminals, on people who are trying to do what they can to improve their own measly, inconsequential lives. Most notably American Crime is intent on dirtying its hands in gray paint. And while that could work to its detriment when creating this hyperreal American landscape, American Crime has the potential to become something vibrant and exciting and new for national broadcast television.

American Crime’s first season seems as though it will focus on one crime for its entire run. That crime is the shooting of a white couple (race seems like it will play a large factor in this show) Matt, who was killed, and his wife Gwen, who is currently fighting for her life in a hospital. But there isn’t some grand investigation or melodramatic detection going on here. In fact “Episode 1” diminishes the role of the detectives greatly. By the end of “Episode 1” all seemingly guilty suspects have already been apprehended. Instead the focus of American Crime will be the racial tensions created by the crime, the fallout from those tensions, and the messiness of everyone and everything where “bad” and “good” cannot be used to describe the people.

Everything in American Crime seems like it will have some justification. Our main suspects in the crime are Tony Gutiérrez, and teenager who was renting out a muscle car to his friends – and their friends – on the weekend to make a little extra cash and to defy his overbearing father. One Sunday night Tony rents the car out to Hector, a Mexican who is a member of a gang and a friend of Tony’s friend. Hector is a low level drug dealer, an illegal immigrant, and someone portrayed as just trying to make it in America. He apparently goes to sell some crystal meth to Carter (who is black) and Aubry (who is white), a couple who is addicted to the drug and aren’t doing much else with their lives except loving each other – and they certainly do seem to genuinely love each other. But Carter can’t pay for the drugs so he tells Hector to come back and he’ll have some money. This is when Carter allegedly kills Matt and Gwen, according to Hector. Carter steals their credit cards and gives them to Hector as payment. And, oh yeah, according to some investigator Matt was a drug supplier.

As you can see American Crime is all a messy racial tapestry. It is unclear whether or not the crime’s story will change over the episodes but, at the very least, it looks like the characters involved in this crime will certainly get explored and their actions will be somewhat explained. It is the dealing with the fallout of the crime that seems to be where American Crime will bread its butter.

That fallout begins with Matt’s mother and father, Barb and Russ. Their relationship shows how the hyperreal murky characters can become a hindrance for the show as well. Russ and Barb have been divorced for quite some time because Russ was addicted to gambling and not only gambled their life savings away but also committed a crime to obtain more money to gamble. Needless to say Barb hates Russ and is pretty mad that the cops called Russ instead of her to identify Matt’s body. She also is riding pretty far up on her high horse.

While her son’s death has affected her she seems more worried about controlling the narrative to push her agenda or beliefs. She sets up an interview for both her and Russ to talk about their son and the injustice that has happened to him – this comes before the revelation he was a supplier of drugs. Barb immediately says the police are doing nothing, when that is clearly not the case, and wants to blame the crime on “some illegal”, as she puts it. Russ doesn’t really want to be there and Gwen’s parents refuse to be a part of the story. Apparently she was somehow mistreated in the family shelters Russ had forced her to live in, because of his gambling, when Matt and Mark grew up and seems to have some sort of racist vendetta. She is the most abhorrent character on the show thus far.

But with all this extra personal baggage to Russ and Barb’s relationship it pushes the show into something a little too over the top. It isn’t enough that the characters who committed the crime have all been forced by circumstance, for lack of a better term, into committing this crime. No, we need the complete vitriolic back and forth between Russ and Barb on top of it. This is where the show’s hyperreal approach pushes into excess. Perhaps their relationship will be diminished in coming episodes but at the moment it has made the pot boil over with dramatic reality that actually takes the audience out of the show.

Another aspect that is pretty prevalent in American Crime is the subtle, and not so subtle, racism. Aside from Barb’s aforementioned agenda there are other occurrences in the show tinged with racism. Aubry gets beat up at a rave for her drugs by two black women. When Carter gets arrested the cops tell Aubry she no longer will have to deal with the abusive Carter, which isn’t how he acts towards her. Likewise when the police apprehend Hector outside of an electronics store they immediately open fire and shoot him in the leg, even though he is trying to run away and poses not threat of violence. Even Tony’s arrest feels off and had me wondering whether he would have been arrested if he were white. The show is very much about race and how it is perceived across the wide spectrum of the public. In this aspect the show’s tone and investigation feel inspired by the events in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner’s death. But that the theme of race in America is where those comparisons end.

The technical aspects of the show are also something not seen everyday on your typical broadcast network. There are some intense filters and colors over some of the shots. Carter and Aubry’s apartment has an intense green to it. The Gutiérrez’s feel lightly washed in yellow. There also seems to be two methods of filming particularly intense scenes. The first is that the dialogue just cuts out. This is most prevalent in the scene where Tony is being arrested and his father Antonio is yelling and arguing with the police about Tony being arrested after cooperating with the investigation. This silent yelling goes on for longer than you’d expect. However, the more common technique seems to be the jump cutting during moments of anger. This causes a kind of disorientation in the viewer but also gives the shot more action on screen. It happens multiple times throughout “Episode 1.” It’s fairly jarring but interesting nonetheless. It helps create the style of the show, which feels fairly different from what is seen on the broadcast networks.

American Crime offers a very unique opportunity to ABC. It is a much less frivolous TV show. It is not the typical melodrama of their flagship shows like Scandal and Revenge. There are some episodes of shows on broadcast networks that try to deal with the topics American Crime seems to want to deal with, but not entire shows devoted to those topics. It feels like it could be a bridge from broadcast networks to the more prestigious networks of AMC and even HBO. It would be smart for American Crime to offer a new case every season, if possible, which would make it akin to HBO’s True Detective and NPR’s hit podcast Serial in that regard. But I’m getting ahead of myself. American Crime is definitely worth checking out. It offers a fairly original experience with solid acting and some interesting stylistic choices.

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Chris Baggiano

Chris graduated from the University of Iowa with a double major in English and Cinema.