'American Crime' and 'Secrets and Lies': TV Review

American Crime (ABC)

Stars: Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Elvis Nolasco, Caitlin Gerard, Richard Cabral, Johnny Ortiz, Benito Martinez, W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller
Team: John Ridley, Michael McDonald

Examines the personal lives of the players involved in a racially charged trial as their worlds are turned upside down.

Two ambitious limited series on ABC are worth watching — for now

"American Crime" is a mystery entwined in issues of race, while "Secrets and Lies" centers on a murder investigation in a small town

In the span of five days, ABC will air two ambitious limited-run television series, both involving a crime, deception and the unraveling of numerous characters' lives.

Secrets and Lies and American Crime are both strong and welcome efforts, even if they come in the midst of an insanely crowded dramatic landscape.

Comparatively, no other broadcast network has fielded anything on this level just yet, with NBC’s manipulative The Slap a poor attempt.

And yet the hope is that regardless of shortcomings, everybody keeps playing in this arena because it gives the networks a chance to up their game and compete more favorably, qualitatively speaking, with cable channels. Doing so via a limited series – 10 episodes each -- is a much likelier prospect than getting a full series order because it’s like taking a leap at prestige without the long-term commitment of mass appeal ratings. On the other hand, ABC has left the door open for both series to continue anthology-style, likely with new casts but perhaps a few key characters remaining, if either of them proves successful.

For ABC, the swings it’s taking with Secrets and Lies and American Crime are big ones. Both series have impressive casts, are shot like small films and invest heavily in dark, multi-layered and challenging storytelling.

And while both have flaws that become clear (I've seen four of the 11 American Crime episodes and two of the 10 episodes of Secrets and Lies), there’s a quality here that makes the shows well worth your attention.

Secrets and Lies will air first, on March 1, and it’s the American version of the Australian series Secrets & Lies, created by Stephen Irwin. The American series, set in bucolic North Carolina and developed by Barbie Kligman, focuses on the murder of a 4-year-old boy named Tom, who is found in the woods by his neighbor, Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe), while Ben is out on a morning run.

Phillippe is immediately likable and gives Ben that Everyman appeal, but since Ben found the body he’s naturally the first suspect.

The Crawfords live on a tight-knit cul-de-sac that is about to have all of the title’s secrets and lies spill forth from it as the series works to document how suburban lives conceal as many skeletons as big-city lives (essentially the same idea is at play in American Crime, though that show has a much stronger emphasis on race).

Ben, a painter, is married to Christy (KaDee Strickland), a local realtor, and they have two daughters, teenager Natalie (Indiana Evans) and young Abby (Belle Shouse). From the outset, we get hints that Ben and Christy have been struggling in their long-term marriage. Ben’s childhood friend, Dave (Dan Fogler), lives in the back cottage courtesy of Ben — and though Dave’s free-spirited lifestyle annoys Christy, he’s good with the girls and a much-needed friend to Ben.

Investigating the crime is Det. Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis), a no-nonsense bloodhound who comes off as oddly unfeeling. Lewis would likely be the holdover character if Secrets and Lies goes the anthology route, and she becomes increasingly interesting as a character even if the early episodes frequently have her staring menacingly like an empty-eyed killer from a horror movie.

Natalie Martinez plays Jess, mother to the dead boy. She’s recently separated from her husband, a special forces soldier who is showing signs of rage after multiple deployments.

As the title suggests, nothing is what it seems on the surface and another eight episodes will twist this story in various directions (though if I had to guess, I’d say I already know who the killer is). With a strong cast (Lewis and Phillippe in particular), the buy-in here is easy. Whether it can reach the creative heights of, say, Broadchurch, which has a similar story, remains to be seen.

American Crime, premiering on March 5, is created and executive produced by Oscar-winner John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), and arguably takes a bigger swing at deep-seated issues. The series deals heavily with racial themes, religion, class and sexuality.

It's even more visually accomplished than the lush Secrets and Lies, creating a vigorous portrayal of rural communities with beautiful, cinematic scope (the series is set in Modesto, where lots of exteriors were shot, but was filmed mostly in Texas) and moving along often without any music at all. Much credit goes to Ramsey Nickell, the director of photography who gave this series its standout look.

American Crime is another series filled with strong performances down the line. The conceit is that a home-invasion robbery kills a veteran named Matt and leaves his wife Gwen clinging to life in the hospital.  Both Matt and Gwen are white and the police investigation almost immediately targets two Latino suspects and one African-American suspect, a drug addict.

Matt’s father, Russ (Timothy Hutton), is the first to be told. Hutton gives a haunted and moving performance here as a former gambling addict whose actions bankrupted his family, which he then abandoned, forcing ex-wife Barb (Felicity Huffman) to raise both boys in public housing in Oakland.

Russ has spent the remainder of his life trying to make it up to the boys. Huffman is – not surprisingly – fantastic as the brittle, unhappy Barb, whose racism rises immediately and rarely abates. Huffman makes Barb palpably unlikable, but never grandstands in her portrayal. Barb has been hardened by her experiences with people of different races, and she's not budging. Yet her blind spot is also obvious – she thinks her son Matt was capable of no wrong.

In fact, a few episodes into American Crime, it’s clear Matt was no saint. And neither was Gwen, a discovery that slowly tears apart her father, Tom (played superbly by W. Earl Brown), while mother Eve (Penelope Ann Miller) just wants her daughter to live and doesn’t want to judge her.

It would be enough right there – in that four-parent block of tragedy – to credit Ridley with a wonderfully nuanced look at how tragedy opens up other windows in people’s lives, revealing further pain. But American Crime has even more fertile material in it — from Benito Martinez as a Mexican widower over-protecting his kids to Regina King as a woman finding meaning in her newly adopted Muslim faith while her jailed junkie brother calls her out about alienating herself from reality. Those two relationships in particular deal strongly with race – how it’s perceived by the outside world but also from within communities.

Even more interesting are Elvis Nolasco and Caitlin Gerard, both exceptional, as Carter and Aubry, interracial lovers and addicts whose characters initially give you almost no reason to like them but who end up bringing to life a truly magnetic, incredibly authentic vision of unfiltered love. Whatever happens to their characters in separate scenes is almost always upended when they get back together — rarely have two characters conveyed more with mere eye contact than these two — so theirs is definitely a relationship to follow.

Despite Ridley’s efforts and the strong acting, American Crime bumps up against some of the storytelling constraints that hot-button issue-oriented series always seem to face (particularly on network television). Characters are often too strident or lack the small touch of nuance that might make them richer or more convincing. Sometimes a character won’t speak out or speak enough to mitigate whatever circumstances they find themselves in (provoking that familiar feeling of wanting to yell at the screen).

That said, some of the character are so impressively conceived and fleshed out that they ignite the material. Brown’s work proves that Ridley’s material can be generationally spot-on and gender-specific; no father wants to read about the wild sexual exploits of his daughter, but at the same time American Crime makes Tom seem like a parental dinosaur (he seems more worried about the implications of sexual pleasure than about whether his daughter survives the night or not).

That’s good stuff.

There’s no telling at this point if the highly charged content of both American Crime and Secrets and Lies will eventually derail later episodes. But it’s clear that people should be watching to find out — and that ABC is at least staking a claim that not all sophisticated adult drama has to be on cable.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine.com