Critics pricked up their ears two years ago when screenwriter John Ridley, riding high on the critical acclaim of 12 Years a Slave, announced he was developing a TV drama. It would be a different kind of crime drama, he said.
Ridley, who won an Oscar the following year, stayed true to his promise: American Crime, which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on ABC, is one of the most powerful and original dramas to grace the broadcast networks in years. If the first three episodes are any indication, it will rank with HBO's True Detective as the best TV series about crime in America.
It also is one of the best-acted, drawing remarkable performances from an ensemble cast that includes Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Benito Martinez, Richard Cabral, Caitlin Gerard, Penelope Ann Miller, and Johnny Ortiz.
True Detective uses the American rural and suburban landscape as an abstract canvas for its mythical characters and events, while American Crime creates its effect with a realism and specificity - not to mention a vast array of major characters - that brings to mind Dickens and one of his more contemporary heirs, Richard Price.
Ridley's drama is especially refreshing because it turns the conventions of the police procedural on their head. It opens typically enough: A young couple is viciously attacked in their Modesto, Calif., home. He's killed, she is in a coma after being beaten and raped. A team of detectives is assigned the case. They begin by briefing the couple's grieving parents.
The murder is deeply disturbing, a fact conveyed through dialogue and acting - there are no gruesome images here, no forensic shots of blood-splattered crime scenes or broken bodies.
Unlike other cop shows, American Crime ignores the cops' stories.
Instead, we experience the story through a changing prism of different perspectives that takes us from the couple's middle-class, white parents to the half-dozen people - almost all Latino or black - implicated in the case. We come to know the suspects on their own terms - before we learn about their guilt. We see through their eyes, and we experience the concrete social space, often hostile, that they traverse every day.
Are they any less culpable for their crimes (we see quite a few)? Ridley is not trying to excuse offenders, but offers us an honest, non-sensationalized picture of their lives. It's an utterly new, foreign take on the American crime story.
The FBI, God & Indiana Jones
Heaven save us from conspiracy thrillers. USA brings us the latest piece of Dan Brown-ian historical-slash-biblical palaver with its "series event," Dig, which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday.
Set in exotic locales including Norway, Jerusalem, and a concrete compound in the New Mexican desert run by cultists, Dig is about "a conspiracy 2,000 years in the making," as the promo videos blare with bluster. It's about an FBI agent (the always sympathetic Jason Isaacs) attached to the American embassy in Israel. He uncovers a plot by a powerful, ridiculously wealthy, well-organized, and ruthless (natch, natch, natch) group of religious zealots drawn, it appears, from the ranks of all three Abrahamic faiths. This group has found a way to jump-start the apocalypse, the End Times, or the Final Revealing that figures in the somewhat-similar salvation stories developed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The group's jumper cables include a box and a bunch of rare gems scattered around the Earth; a red calf in Norway; and a strange, gifted 12-year-old boy in the American Southwest.
Dig was developed by the ingenious Gideon Raff (Homeland) and Heroes creator Tim Kring. It's sure to make for addictive viewing for the Dan Brown faithful.
The rest of us will make a lot of snack runs.
Premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on 6ABC.
Premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on USA.