Since its debut in March, ABC’s American Crime has helped break the mold of broadcast TV’s crime dramas. The topical show, tackling issues surrounding race, religion, and a flawed judicial system, is a parallel to the current state of affairs in America and spotlights the reactions of the human condition when faced with injustice. At Monday night’s AwardsLine Emmy screening of the Season 1 finale, creator John Ridley delved into the gritty drama and talked about the social intent of the series that follows the murder and subsequent trial of a war veteran, examined through the lives of the suspects, victims and their families. Joining Ridley were executive producer Michael McDonald and stars Richard Cabral and Elvis Nolasco, who are now officially returning for Season 2.
The timing of the limited series that gives the audience a peek at the story behind the headlines couldn’t have come at a more salient period. Ridley and McDonald realized early on the vital nature of the story they were conveying. “The stories that we tell, the way we tell them, are much larger than just entertainment,” Ridley said. “Michael and I, in terms of the show that we do, we take that responsibility very very seriously and we’re deeply appreciative for it.”
In a discussion moderated by Deadline’s Dominic Patten, Ridley expounded on why he chose the town of Modesto, CA to tell such a profound narrative. For Ridley, it was about avoiding preconceived notions that can come with a well-known city. The location was “meant to be a canvas and that it could be any place, anywhere… places like Ferguson where previously, most people I would image, don’t know the name of that city but suddenly becomes synonymous with feelings with emotions with reactions. I wanted that sense with American Crime.”
Ridley said next season will take place in a “different city, in a different circumstance, a different inciting incident, and hopefully we’ll have more conversations of subjects that have proven to be far to urgent in our society.”
Among the notable differences from other TV crime dramas in Season 1 was the portrayal of legal authority on screen — although they are present, most times the camera and the viewer does not see them. “The system is a character yet the system is faceless,” Ridley said. “You’re up against the system, but often times it’s nameless and faceless.” We wanted to make the system feel… more objective and neutral.”
Another way the series differentiates itself: there isn’t a resolution to the case at the center of Season 1. The showrunners stressed importance of avoiding the procedural path. “With Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, we’re never going to know exactly what happened that night. It doesn’t change the fact that a young man is dead and another person’s life just continues to unravel.” Instead, offering a bit of hope in the end with Cabral’s Hector getting a job. “That’s exactly where I wanted this to end [Season 1],” Ridley said of the final scene. “With this individual who, when everything else is just chaotic, is given an opportunity for a second chance.”
Putting a dark, raw, racially charged show like American Crime on broadcast TV was a risky move, but McDonald said it is part of an evolution of bringing audiences back to traditional TV. “What’s happening with all the streaming places… people are taking their time to tell stories,” he said, adding, “it’s because they’re just looking for quality. Not that network television isn’t quality, but the quality they are used to in the other spaces, you’re starting to see it on network platforms too.”