Already described as a broadcast-TV stab at doing a prestige-cable series, “American Crime” is produced with a stark sense of realism, from the unglamorous look of the actors to the near-absence of music. Telling the story from multiple perspectives, a la “Crash,” intersecting around a murder, writer-director John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) works to challenge perceptions and preconceived notions, as the evolving facts of the case sweep up the characters, but seldom shake their prejudices and convictions. This is, in any venue, ambitious storytelling, although the rarefied air it inhabits could wind up thinning the ratings as well.
Certainly, marketing a series this downbeat and low-key — with uncomfortable issues about race woven into the fabric — asks a lot of an audience that’s been marinating in the bombast of Shonda Rhimes’ melodramas, with lead-in “Scandal” growing loopier by the moment.
Ridley (who wrote the first three episodes, and directed the first couple) also drills deep into the anguish of those involved, trusting his topnotch cast to sell the emotion with looks and glances more than histrionics.
The premise sounds simple enough: A man is murdered and his wife seriously injured and, we’re told initially, sexually assaulted. The news comes as a devastating jolt to his estranged parents: Russ (Timothy Hutton), who is the first to be notified; and Barb (Felicity Huffman), who is almost immediately hell-bent on securing justice for her son, to the point of blind retribution.
The investigation quickly centers on an African-American junkie, Carter (Elvis Nolasco), who is trying to support his equally strung-out girlfriend (Caitlin Gerard). But the plot implicates others, among them a naive Hispanic youth (Johnny Ortiz) who might have become unwittingly involved, much to the surprise of his overprotective father (Benito Martinez).
Finally, there are the parents (W. Earl Brown, Penelope Miller) of the wounded woman, who both respond differently to the tragedy; and Carter’s sister Aliyah (Regina King), a Muslim woman whose attempts to assist her brother inject an additional note of tension (and dramatically speaking, another hot-button issue) into the story.
Cross-cutting among the families, Ridley slowly begins peeling away layers surrounding the case, with each altering the picture of what transpired — and calling into question whether this was the sort of random crime that Barb instantly believes it to be, appearing eager to slap handcuffs on a minority perpetrator. The premiere is raw and occasionally brutal, compelling viewers to see more of a gunshot wound than a lot of people can comfortably stomach.
In many respects, the notion of unfolding family secrets through the refracting prism of a crime is nothing new — the first season of “The Killing” comes to mind — but this spare approach manages to make the drama feel both fresh and, frankly, potentially not very commercial, to the extent so much of this requires spending time with characters in such an obvious state of agony.
The tone Ridley sets, in fact, is virtually the mirror image of another risky new network drama, NBC’s “The Slap,” which also traces a story from multiple angles. Yet while that show is bracing precisely because it dares to make most of its characters unlikable in one way or another, “American Crime” compels the audience to think by finding sympathy for its key players, seeking shades of gray beyond media labels like “criminal” and “victim.”
“There is nothing I won’t do for my child,” Barb — as played by Huffman, the walking embodiment of righteous fury — says in the second of the four episodes previewed, which essentially becomes the key articulation of the issue that “American Crime” probes.
Sacrificing and caring for one’s family is expected, after all. What this challenging drama dares to explore is whether that relatively narrow focus leaves much room for extending a spirit of generosity — or even a mild benefit of the doubt — to strangers.