Crime dramas pique an audience’s interest because they want to see justice served. At the end of an episode or season of a crime drama, there’s nothing more satisfying than the criminal finally being caught by the diversely skilled team of investigators and brought to jail. In the genre of the crime drama, this team of investigators is the key element that keeps the audience coming back. Throughout the course of an investigation, the audience learns new things about the members’ characters, their relationships with each other and what skills they bring to the team. These elements and the popularity of this genre prove that this is what resonates with audiences.
What if there was no definite line of good and bad? What if the crime became more and more complicated as the investigation went on? What if the audience is shown the points of view of not only the victims and the investigators but also the accused? This is where American Crime comes in.
American Crime is an anthology drama series on ABC created by John Ridley, best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for 12 Years A Slave. Each season focuses on a different crime in a different part of the United States and how the ripple effects of the crime affects everyone involved. This show also uses a rotating cast of actors (Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Richard Cabral and Benito Martinez) in which each actor plays a different character each season.
The first season takes place in California and explores the case of a home invasion that leaves a US veteran dead and his wife severely injured. The case is further complicated as the show investigates the impact on not only the victims’ families but also the suspects and their families as they all try to navigate the legal system in the wake of the tragedy. In the second season, the show follows two school populations in the Midwest, one private and one public, when the pictures from a party of a high school student named Taylor Blaine are leaked online. Taylor accuses two of the popular basketball players of sexual assault and his mother calls the police, bringing in a legal investigation on the private school that exposes more than intended. Only one episode has aired of the third season but it is already a slight departure from its previous seasons. Instead of opening up with a definitive crime that is being prosecuted, the focus is on the people involved in the “invisible” crimes of illegal labor and underage sex trafficking.
American Crime uses a reworking of the crime drama to complicate what the audience thinks they know about the case that is presented to them within the first episode of a season. The focus of American Crime is not the good guys trying to find the bad guy or the suffering of the victims. It’s about the complex humans that are thrown into an uncomfortable and devastating situation and how they handle it.
One of the notable cinematographic choices that invites the audience to empathize with the characters of this series is the use of close up shots. The technique is specifically potent when used in scenes involving a particularly emotionally charged conversation. Instead of the camera switching between the faces of the two characters as they speak as is normally done in television and film, we remain on one character’s face as the conversation continues. There are usually few jarring flashes of the other character’s face throughout the scene. This sustained close up not only invites but also forces the audience to empathize with the character as they process and react to the conversation and any new information they are given.
American Crime also offers a uniquely intersectional approach through which to look at the characters involved in the criminal case. Instead of each of the characters being pigeon-holed as an archetype, their intersecting identities are displayed. In the first season, Benito Martinez plays Alonso Gutierrez, a Mexican immigrant who believes that because he and his family came into the country the right way (legally), they are better than illegal immigrants. He takes the belief that the law is on their side with him into the interrogation room when his child is brought in for questioning about the case and he doesn’t ask his son if he wants legal advice. Regina King plays Aliyah Shadeed, the sister of Carter Nix, the main suspect of the murder in the first season. Carter has been in a relationship with drugs and his drug addict girlfriend (a white woman, who is arrested at the same time as Carter but released instantly) while Aliyah converted to Islam and devoted her time to her faith. Throughout the season we see their strained relationship as they try to reconcile their differences in beliefs and work together to defend Carter’s case. These complicated facets aim to accurately portray the messy and more nuanced parts of the human, and uniquely American experience.
American Crime works to provoke empathy and understanding while also exhibiting the shades of gray involved in crime that viewers don’t generally take note of. This show is a modern take on the crime drama genre that brings each situation down to earth and heavily involves the audience’s own emotional reactions.
American Crime has two seasons available for streaming on Netflix with the third season currently airing on ABC every Sunday at 10PM EST.
Author: Danielle Fraser
Editor: Ammaarah Mookadam