Last night, the third season of American Crime, a series that nearly every critic on TV considers one of the great creations of our time, came to an end. The general consensus among many critics and trades is that, given the paucity of the ratings, it will be the final seasons. Considering that ABC is a network tottering on the brink of finishing fourth this year, and that this is one of the few broadcast series that has managed to be nominated, much less win Emmys for the last two seasons, I consider that the odds of its survival are a little better — maybe fifty-fifty. But let us consider the reason why a show this consistently magnificent even in the era of peak TV, is on the verge of death.
American Crime is a brilliant series, one of the most consistently well-acted I’ve seen so far this decade. The cast, from Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton and Regina King on down, are doing some tremendous work. The series deals with some of the most relevant issues that any TV show, particularly in this political climate, has ever dealt with. And that may be part of the problem. It deals with them in a far more gripping and realistic manner than any series I’ve ever seen — maybe even more realistically than one of Peak TV’s first real masterpieces The Wire. On that series, David Simon suggested that the system of crime and punishment, along with society in general, were broken so badly that no big fixes could come. However, he did suggest that individual victories, however small, were possible.
American Crime doesn’t even believe in that. This has been made uniformly clear every year, but especially in the third season, where it tried to take a broader scope within the world of human trafficking. Here, even the people who try to take a stand, most notably Felicity Huffman’s crusading housewife and Regina emotionally burnt-out social worker, are eventually worn down by both their personal battles and the problems with the systems that in the final episode they find themselves surrendering to the very institutions they have spent all season battling against. It’s wrenching and painful. And unlike The Wire, there aren’t even the occasional moments of black comedy to give us relief.
Indeed, that may be American Crime’s greatest achievement — creating an emotionally brilliant and scarring drama with no relief at all. There’s no background music to distract us, almost no music at all, as a matter of fact. The dialogue unfolds with speakers in the background often carrying on unseen.. Whenever an obscenity comes out, the screen blacks along with the word that’s cut, which adds an even more jarring appearance. The viewer is forced to look on at the darkness of the scene and the reality of the situation.
This is a wrenching, painful series, and considering that most broadcast viewers come to TV looking for escapism, one can almost understand, if not approve, of why American Crime’s numbers started low and haven’t gone up. One could rant and rave against the mentality of a viewer wanting Olivia Pope or Jack Bauer to come in and bring a speedy resolution, but let’s be honest, this kind of fare has never been popular with the viewing public. For my first witnesses, I would call Tom Fontana and David Simon. The only reasons the series that were at least critical successes lasted as long as they did was because of the patients of their corporate Medici’s, not because millions of viewers wanted to see them.
Now, let’s be honest. Given the fairly recent history of low-rated TV series being brought back to life by other networks, and the fact that show-runner John Ridley has already launched two successful series, one on basic cable, one on Showtime, the ultimate fate of American Crime might now be so dire. I can definitely see a network like HBO or a streaming service, picking it up for at least another season, which would probably have the added advantage of not only keeping the series alive, but allowing Ridley et all to explore in more depth (and with less restrictions) the issues the show wants to explore. (My personal choice might be superstation WGN, which in addition to backing another Ridley based series was willing to explore darker field in the critically acclaimed drama Manhattan.)
Yet there is a part of me, something deep within me, that really hopes that ABC will see the light, and keep the show alive. As I have said over and over, American Crime is a victory for network TV. If it’s cancelled, or even if it goes to cable or streaming, it will be another defeat, and a win for Shonda Rhimes and Dick Wolf. ABC will fill its timeslot with another comic book series, or a silly escapist drama that will probably get ratings only marginally better, and won’t be nearly as good. This is particularly true for a network that seems determined to let its most interesting series go to other networks, and fill its drama slot with Shondaland, which despite the facts its ratings have been in decline (and only marginally better than American Crime) continue to keep going on for reasons that escape me.
Keep American Crime on the air, ABC. You haven’t produced a series this purely brilliant in years. The world needs more shows like this, even if the world doesn’t know it.