Lunchtable TV talk – American Crime: Don’t believe everything you read


After spending a lot of time watching ridiculous shows, I thought American Crime, with its gritty realism, would be a good change of pace. In many ways, it is. It is gritty and real and tells a story from multiple perspectives. Characters are real, complicated, vulnerable and flawed – mostly unlikeable – but then, aren’t most people, especially on TV? While most characters are exaggerated for television, I find the exaggerations are only slightly true here. For example, with grief exploding from the uptight mother of a murder victim, she is desperately trying to keep it together, tightly wound, and keep control over her emotions and how things play out (a stellar performance from Felicity Huffman). Ultimately, most of what comes out of her mouth is critical, unpleasant, drives wedges between other characters and her, and above all, comes out as racist and short-sighted.

Who am I to say that her lashing out (however controlled it is) is exaggerated? Her insistence in a recent episode that “this family was never normal” strikes me as funny in that it’s true that no family is ever normal. The brother of the murder victim seems to be one of the only clear-headed, normal people here. His handling of the manipulative demands and undercurrent of racism his mother has always doled out is inspired. He finally confronts her – he seems to be the only one confronting anyone with reason in this show – and it’s hard to watch. It’s for scenes like these that I continue to watch, even though I am not finding the show particularly meaningful or compelling.

I read a lot of articles introducing the show before it started. I had high hopes. But the show unfolds slowly and is mundane. Perhaps this is what things are like – slow and murky. In the criminal justice system, justice is not swift and even if the outcome is “fair”, it is not going to seem fair to all parties. Crime and its aftermath has a way of revealing secrets under the surface – which then tear people apart on top of the grief and loss they are already feeling. It can unravel tenuous “peace” – in families, in societies. For example, we can see a relatively deft handling of the racial and cultural issues at play in society as a whole here, and these tensions lead to stupid decisions and explosions. Nothing is obvious, but it is undoubtedly taxing to try to create a story from all angles. For example, the story explores divides within one community. The father of a Mexican-American family that is central to the story condemns “illegals” as giving the rest of them a bad name. Naturally this does not go over well within his community (his family is shunned from their church after the father’s tirade on “illegals” is broadcast on the news).

The point is – the show’s treatment tells it from many sides, but as one online outlet explains:

“The problem with frank conversations about race and prejudice, particularly as it pertains to American life, is that the issue is so enormous that it’s impossible to have a comprehensive discussion on the subject. There’s too much at stake with too many affiliated tendrils to ever feel as if it’s a topic that has anything close to a solution, much less one that could be reached by simple dialogue. So instead of having the big important conversations about race and really digging into the main course that is oppression, society tends to prefer it’s race conversations in amuse-bouche portions, just bite-sized bits of conflict that fuel the Twitter outrage fires for days until they eventually burn themselves out, often just in time for another flare up.”

Perhaps I find the show frustrating because the characters are weak and human and do exactly what real people would do rather than what you want them to do – or what they should do (and what TV characters looking for “redemption” would do). In that sense, even five episodes in, I am not sure what I think about American Crime.

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