Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
In 2013, writer John Ridley created 12 Years a Slave. The film in itself went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars (and everywhere else, really) and garnered him a Best Adapted Screenplay statue. He had clout after a career with variety of projects ranging from Undercover Brother to Three Kings. However, the one merit of 12 Years a Slave is that it had merit and wasn't just a film. It was something important that everyone realized needed to be talked about. It explored racism in American history unlike any contemporary film of its kind. It was challenging and investing. It was art that would become instituted in schools as learning materials. In a sense, Ridley had to come up with quite the encore to keep his clout going.
With exception to the ignored Jimi: All is By My Side, he has been quiet. In a move that seems to be very popular, he has turned to TV to present his next and arguably even more ambitious concept. Over 11 episodes, American Crime will explore race relations in modern America as it is relative to a murder. There's a wide cast of characters from various backgrounds and beliefs. It is a concept that is ambitious, especially for basic cable in ways that have often felt reserved for HBO's Sunday night programming, including the show whose pilot it most resembles: The Leftovers.
This isn't to say that the massive cast is in any way as problematic as The Leftovers. It's simply that they're all surface level and one note in ways that aren't offensive, but lack any deeper resonance. At this point in the series, it introduces a large swath of characters going about their lives and being brought to apologetic natures by police officers. There's lawyers, car repairers and even drug dealers that all intersect. None are particularly memorable despite Ridley's ear for distinguished dialogue. However, the conceit that drives the show has enough momentum to make it seem sympathetic and forces the viewer to second guess what is commonly known as profiling.
The one beauty is that it is a miniseries at its core and will likely have a convenient bow on the entire package. However, to properly assess the first episode is to run into a series of problems. Much like The Leftovers, there's kernels of ideas that the viewer will likely grab onto, but there's almost nothing more deep upon initial glance. These are themes being belted at walls and forcing the obvious guilts to come forward. It is in subsequent episodes where these things will hopefully be made more clear. But for now, there isn't a whole lot to actually care about that doesn't feel like yet another procedural. The only gimmick is this one will talk about important things.
This isn't to discredit American Crime or its intentions. In an era where Fresh Off the Boat is cutting edge because its predominant cast is Asian on a main channel, there's still room to grow on tolerance. In fact, there's few comparable shows at the moment for something like this. This isn't to say that themes aren't explored on shows in a less explicit way, but when was the last time a show felt like it existed to explore race relations? It's not common and may just be ABC's big ploy to look like the most progressive network out there. It is admirable, but it also feels a little familiar.
The one issue that isn't in favor of this review is time. You want to properly assess this show and produce quality writing, yet the first episode does no more than introduce characters and ideas. They're all too familiar to become invested in beyond this. We are familiar with the profiling and the sincere pleading is heavy handed in large swaths. The real magic will not come until later episodes when everything is settled and the resolutions become more obvious. However, what exactly is the point of the series as based on the first episode? It feels like it's simply saying to treat everyone better.
It would make sense why Ridley would want to tackle this subject matter on the backs of 12 Years a Slave. Much like how that film sparked debate about race relations in America's past, this is likely expecting to do the same for the present. It isn't that Ridley is a bad writer, but it does feel like an ego trip. The real merits will come if it manages to do anything provoking with the subject matter to tackle whether realistically or metaphorically current events. The show's one silver lining is that it comes at a time when this feels like fuel for a progressive narrative. I simply worry, as I felt during this episode, that it won't be more than overdramatic people realizing that other races aren't evil. It's an important theme, but one that has been explored too much to simply make a story about. Good luck, Ridley.