American Crime 1×01 ‘Pilot’ : Racial divide

So, I feel like ABC has been promoting this series forever. Like there’s an entire wing of their marketing department exclusively devoted to American Crime. With all those ads, the Oscar winning screenwriter bit we heard in every one of them, that’s a lot of hype. And as one of the people who didn’t see 12 Years a Slave, I watched this cold, without a frame of reference for what Mr. Oscar Winning Screenwriter is known for. So the question is, did this show live up to all of its many, many ads?

I’ll say right off that I dug the opening. A 911 call alerting the operator to an attack on a young couple. There’s nothing on the screen, minus the subtitles to make sure you know exactly what’s being said. It’s effective stuff, and it pulls you into the action from minute one.

Enter Jeff Skokie, the father of the murder victim. He’s called in to identify his son’s body, and he’s very, very calm about it. Until he actually confirms that the corpse on the table is that of his son, Matt. At that point, he escapes into a bathroom and has a brief but intense breakdown. It should be noted that the acting here was great. By the time he returns, he’s calm again, or at least trying to be. It’s a very telling look into how this guy deals with the worst situation imaginable. Which only gets worse when he learns that Gwen, his daughter-in-law was raped, and is close to death herself.

At this point, the show becomes an ensemble piece about a disparate group of characters with seemingly nothing in common. The game of the pilot is to figure out who all these people are, and how they’re connected to this attack. And admittedly, it’s a well-played game on the writer’s part.

We’ve got Felicity Huffman who is…so refreshingly far away from Desperate Housewives. I quit on that show a few years before it ended, and I must’ve forgotten how good she can be. Here she plays Barb Skokie, mother of Matt. And she is just…very racist. But not in a terribly obvious way. She’s not some uneducated, backwoods lady,  spouting about White supremacy. And yet, when she hears her son’s attacker was probably Hispanic, she immediately assumes the man was also an illegal. Despite Russ reminding her that there’s no proof of that.  She later spouts off to a reporter about her perfect son, the Iraq vet who fought for his country, then came home to get killed by someone from outside of it. She yells at her ex about being the only White family in public housing when her sons were growing up, about what “those people” did to her because of it.

Source: ABC

Source: ABC

She’s actually a really fascinating character, probably because Huffman plays her well enough and subtly enough that you don’t always want to stab her in the face. Though you always kind of do. She’s the epitome of casual racism. She also hassles Gwen’s parents about talking to the reporter, saying they need to remind people “who our children were.”

Were? Really? Their kid is in bad shape, not dead. Way to be sensitive.

There’s the Gutierrez family, a dad and his two teenagers who end up getting sucked into the investigation. Specifically, it’s son Tony who’s arrested for his possible involvement. Tony is young and naïve, and the cops use that to their advantage, playing nice so he’ll answer questions and incriminate himself before his dad shows up. But that’s not accurate, because cops never do that to underage suspects. Nope, never.

Carter and Aubrey are a biracial couple with serious drug issues. Their relationship is just…all kinds of toxic. When Aubrey is beaten up, Carter lovingly cleans her wounds…and then chews her out for letting their drugs get stolen. Aubrey is willing to do sexual favors for strangers, in front of Carter, if it means more meth. Their whole dynamic is terribly disturbing, in a well-written sort of way.

Hector is another Hispanic character who ends up playing the role of suspect who gets shot without warning. But the cops never do that, either.

By the end of the pilot, we see how all these people are (supposedly) connected to the Skokie attack, and we learn that war vet Matt wasn’t as perfectly clean cut as both his parents thought. But, no parents ever discovers a secret, darker side to their adult child. No, that’s just silly talk.

This structure can be tricky, weaving all these different characters together in unexpected ways. But American Crime pulled it off rather well. Was I totally blown away by the pilot? No. Was it a solid start to a more complex narrative? Yes, yes it was, and I’m interested to see how things play out from here.

Nicolette Schneider

is a lit geek, a comic geek, and a certified TV fanatic. She often prefers fictional people over real ones. When she does make friends with regular humans, she likes the ones who give her access to their Netflix accounts. She loves words and hopes to one day make money stringing them together. Until then, read those words for free on
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