In 2000, Michael Douglas starred as a respected conservative judge who was asked by the US President to head up a task force on the war against drugs. This judge in the course of doing his job would discover that his own daughter was a drug addict. The film was called Traffic.
In 2004 a film called Crash, a winner of 3 Oscars, came into our film theaters and our lives. It was a multi-family story about Los Angeles citizens who led vastly different lives, but who’s lives collided in the aftermath of a car crash.. The film interweaves their stories about race, loss, and redemption.
In 2006, another film, this one called Babel, got 7 Oscar nominations (winning one) played on our movie screens. This film was about a married couple on vacation in Morocco when tragedy struck. The event touched off an interlocking story involving four different families living separately across the globe.
At the place where those three movies intersect, comes the brand new ABC-TV Series called American Crime. The show premiered just a few days ago on Thursday, March 5th. While film has readily embraced the multi-family format surrounding the topics of culture, race , and crime – prime time TV has mostly avoided doing shows that address this country’s changing cultural, racial, and ethnic mix. One might look backward and point at HBO’s The Wire, as an example, but finding and naming other shows, of this type, is not an easy task.
So the series opens with a voiced caller to 911 reporting that his neighbors appear to be dead. Cut to a man being awakened in the middle of the night. This is Russ, he says. A policeman on the other end of the phone is calling tp request that he come to Modesto. They need a positive identification of a body, who might be his son.
Russ, his last name is Skokie, arrives in Modesto by air, and two detectives are at the gate waiting for him. They take him to the morgue, and tell him that behind the window blinds there is a body. They’ll open the blinds when he says he is ready.
We see only Russ Skokie’s face. The body is not shown.
Russ gives the positive ID, and only then do the detectives tell him that his son’s wife has also been involved. She is alive, but in critical condition at the hospital. The detective tells him that she has been sexually assaulted. Russ and the victim’s mother are divorced. We will learn that Russ had issues, and the divorce is far from amicable.
Mean while, and elsewhere, a young couple, are struggling to make ends meet. They’re at the end of their rope – they’re drug addicts and broke. She’s white, he’s black.
Also across town, we are still talking Modesto, at the Gutierrez home we meet this family, A single parent, Alonzo Gutierrez is the Dad and he owns an auto repair garage, and there are two teen age kids, Tony and Jenny, who are of high school age. They’re Latinos and the father is strict, so strict that maybe his domination over his kids will be problematic. He will insist that although they’re immigrants, they do things the right way. Stay away from gangs, stay away from no drugs. is his mantra to his kids. As he calls it – do it the right way.
The police have hardly anything to go on. A particular type of car was seen parked in the neighborhood where the killing and the assault took place. And the driver has been described as a young Hispanic male.
Now as it happens, the car described by the witnesses is spotted by the police. They pull the car over, and the driver is Tony Gutierrez. The car is not registered because it is being repaired and reconditioned at Alonzo’s garage so it may not be driven on the streets. But Tony Gutierrez is spotted driving the car and pulled over. The police ask Tony to agree to come in for questioning.
Alonzo Gutierrez is going to meet his son at the police station.
Meanwhile, the mother of the murdered man arrives in town. She is the former Mrs. Barbara Skokie. She wants answers right away, and of course the police have none to offer at the present. She is supremely angered by the news that the police haven’t a suspect yet. She immediately brands the ‘supposed killer; as an illegal Mexican. This is not a nice woman. She is still angered by the fact that her husband Russ had to go to jail, and she was left nearly penniless and had to live in public housing aka – the projects. A white woman, with two kids, living in that neighborhood. That’s what she said, and as she said, you could see the disgust on her face.
That’s how the show, and most of Episode One begins. The parents of the sexually assorted woman come into the picture (above), and they’re the polar opposite of the former Mrs. Skokie. They do not want to talk to the press, unlike Mrs. Skokie, who wants to light a fire under the police and expects the media to be the match stick. She also needs to vent and let out her inner rage.
Before the episode ends, Tony Gutierrez is arrested on murder charges. We aren’t quite sure, but it appears as if he may have only ‘rented; the car to a certain Latino man. This man is using the victim’s credit card. A suspicious store owner really doesn’t believe that this is really a man called Skokie. So he stalls and goes into the back of the store and calls the police.
But the guy is spooked.He leaves without his purchase just about the time the police are arriving. He attempts to flee and is shot. At the hospital, when the police tell him they’re going to hang the murder and rape around his neck, he gives up another guy. This is the guy we met earlier – the black junkie with the junkie white girl friend.
That’s most of the episode and will easily serve as an ample set up for you.
The series is 11 episodes long and is the creative output of John Ridley of 12 Years A Slave fame.
Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman are the once and former Mr and Mrs Skokie. Benito Martinez, who was seen as Senator Mendoza in the currently airing House of Cards plays Alonzo Gutierrez. John Ortiz plays Tony Gutierrez. The druggie couple Aubrey and Carter are played by Caitlin Gerard and Elvis Nolasco. The Latino who was shot and is in the hospital, manacled to the bed, is called Hector Tonz. He is played by Richard Cabral.
Actually, the show has a huge cast. As I said it will run 11 episodes. I think ABC-TV is to be applauded for green-lighting the series and for broadcasting it. Of the people we’ve met so far, we can see that most of the characters are in a pressure cooker of sorts. It is quite likely that we have only scratched the surface of the racial and ethnic tension that exists in Modesto, which is set up as a standard American city/town.
There’s much more to be told and much more to investigated. So far we have a murder, a sexual assault, a young Latino male who may know far more than he’s already told, the police,. There’s the distinct possibility that Alonzo’s kids are rebelling against his domination. They may not be as squeaky clean as he thinks they are. Russ Skokie is no angel.
The police have shot an unarmed man. And there will be a bombshell of a surprise about the murdered victim near the end of the episode.
I like the format of the show, and the fact that the police who really haven’t solved the case yet, only know a little more than we do. And we’ve yet to meet other suspects, or get even a hint abouthow the legal system plays out in Modesto. Nor have we seen the cops in the off-duty modes. So there will be no predictions coming from me – at least not yet.
But all of American Crime is not great. Too many of the characters are archetypes and familiar. Hutton’s Russ Skokie tells a police detective. Matt and I are close. He tells me everything. I would know if he did something like that.Mrs. Skokie plays the more than bitter divorcee. And the ultra strict, Latino father with his kids under his thumb. Yes we’ve seen all of these characters before. Nothing new here – at least not yet.
But there’s no mistaking the fact that show is both involving, compelling, and intriguing. My only real issue is that this is broadcast TV and prime time broadcast TV so I am expecting unrealistic language, and certainly no nudity or sexual situations. But this too is to be expected. Broadcast TV is nothing if not sanitized.
ABC-TV’s American Crime airs in the 10:00 PM slot on Thursday nights.