Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

The phone rings. It’s the police. There was a home invasion. Your son is dead – shot, and your daughter-in-law is in a coma – beaten, possibly raped. Silence… It might be a superficial silence, the lull before a storm of antagonism – hurt, hate and horror – but it is a quiet that articulates the devastation of violent crime; when time is condensed into a rage of heart palpitations because, quite simply, there are no words.

To give a voice to the silence would be to condescend the catastrophe that shocked it into being but to probe the psychology behind the reticence and articulate the ensuing wound – it’s something Oscar winning writer John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) does with streetwise sagacity in his new 11-episode TV series, American Crime.

Whilst the title might undermine the universality of criminal activity by exuding an ‘all-American’ context, the show’s multiple viewpoints (think Crash or Traffic) emphasise a story about people – traumatised parents, well-meaning criminals (right?), defiant teens, loyal lovers who moonlight as vindictive meth-heads…the good the bad and the utterly ambiguous.

This is a story that shies away from grandiose moral perspective; it’s about a violence more personal

The bombastic inflection of the show’s purposeful heading pitches a viewer challenge – to watch and invest, in spite of the bias invoked by the title American Crime, which either excludes viewers from culpability (based on their citizenship) or includes them for the same reason. Of course, life is never conclusively black or white; it’s a shade of grimy grey. All the stuff about race, class, gender and the socio-economic Americanisms associated with exorbitant crime statistics is there but the crux of Ridley’s story is this: a man died. His wife was beaten to near-death. Tragedy has no nationality.

Neither does pain. The words that introduce Barb Hanlon (mum of crime victim Matt Skokie) to the American Crime audience are not “boo hoo, my son is dead” or “kill the mofos” but an annoyed-yet-calm “What are the police doing?”. It’s a casual nod by Ridley to whodunnit-crime-TV, which the writer is setting up for a casual revamp… because American Crime isn’t about ‘what the police are doing’ or even who did the deed. It’s about the aftermath of violence, aptly alluded to in the underwhelming landscape of Modesto, California, which strikes the senses with an oppressive stagnation that leaves viewers parched; enclosed by a sense of bleak austerity. Tragedy is a desolate, lonely space and American Crime contemplates an unavoidable alienation wrought by disaster.

Isolation is an arguable by-product of violent crime because no two humans have the same experience, even when they have it together. Gwen Skokie’s parents, allied as husband and wife by virtue of marriage and more recently tragedy, find themselves alone in their emotional angst when they react differently to the sordid state of their daughter’s marriage and the shocking facts surrounding her assault.

Matt’s estranged parents Barb and Russ (whose angst is played superbly by Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton) are not even close to being united by a simultaneous feeling of loss. In fact, the second sentence that comes out of Barb’s mouth is “Why did they call you?” – not understanding why she wasn’t numero uno on the who-to-call-when-you-son’s-been-shot-in-the-face list.

Isolation is a by-product of violent crime because no two humans have the same experience, even when they have it together

We forgive Barb’s misplaced emotion and borderline neurosis because tragedy, although logical in terms of cause and effect (shooting a loaded gun at a person’s head is likely to cause injury) is a chaotic thing, rendering a rational response highly irrational – nonsensical – in the context of violent crime. But Ridley pushes his audience; can we forgive Barb when she turns her son’s death into a race riot, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? It’s the only thing that makes sense to her; facing the fact that she raised an abusive drug addict is too difficult a truth to swallow. Rather, he’s dead because he’s white – deflection deluxe.

Barb tried her best – her marriage failed, Russ walked out and it was just her and the boys, alone, with no financial or emotional support. Now, one son is dead and the other doesn’t want to know her. Although the crime against Matt Skokie invokes a history of violence and, yes, the shame of a nation, the story shies away from grandiose moral perspective; it’s about a violence more personal – one that originates from even the best of intentions.

Alonzo Gutierrez (Benito Martinez) does his damndest to keep his kids from the gangster lifestyle familiar to many Mexican immigrants, legal or illegal. But his efforts are suffocating and son Tony (Johnny Oritz) thanks his father by ending up a murder suspect. Even with the support of her parents, Gwen Skokie (Kira Pozehl) ends up in an abusive marriage with a string of lovers to compensate.

Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard) and Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco) are drug addicted miscreants, in spite of a loving father and sister, respectively. The insinuation is that we’re all part of the great ‘American crime’ syndicate – even when we don’t mean to be; even when we try our best… as irritating (let’s be honest) as Barb’s grief-driven delusions are, Ridley compels us to understand. Our best is not always good enough. Is it?

There’s no denying that American Crime makes us think. But does it make us care? Not entirely – is the short answer. It’s brilliantly acted, beautifully shot but doesn’t make room for the more subtle moments that reveal character and cajole viewers into associations of familiarity and relatability. We empathise with the show’s themes but, in a way, we’re glad to see the back of the Barb, Russ – the whole lot of ‘em. It could be a narrative flaw but, inadvertently, isn’t that just the point: when people are bothersome we check out. As if they’re not worth it.

American Crime has been renewed for a second season, which is scheduled to premier in 2016.

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