After several decades of falling short in developing comedies and dramas that reflect society's changing demographics, major broadcasters are finally showcasing series with lead characters of color and ethnic themes. "How to Get Away With Murder," "Empire" "Fresh Off the Boat" and "The Mindy Project" are among the shows praised for bringing more cultural variety to the TV landscape. Even more significantly, most have drawn solid ratings.
But with the notable exception of HBO's multi-layered urban treatise "The Wire," which ended in 2008, prime time has largely sidestepped examining racial and ethnic tensions, prejudice and discrimination in any sustained manner. Now with the police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York prompting protests and new calls for cultural self-examination comes John Ridley's "American Crime," which premieres March 5.
Ridley, who scored an Oscar last year with his screenplay for the searing drama "12 Years a Slave," built the 11-episode ABC series around a brutal home invasion as seen through the prism of race and culture. The show, which stars Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton and Benito Martinez, marks one of the most provocative — and risky — dramatic explorations of race relations undertaken by a major network.
"We're certainly making an effort to make a show that is reflective of what's going on in this country today," Ridley said. "That was the mandate which was presented to me, to be frank in this kind of discussion."
Although the series began developing before the explosive events in Ferguson and New York, he acknowledged that viewers may detect parallels between fictional and real events.
"To the degree of what's going in America today, there are parallels that will be drawn," said Ridley, who developed the project with executive producer Michael J. McDonald. "The sad reality is that, unfortunately, these events remain cyclical in our country. It was never our desire to exploit any of these things, and it's not my desire to just merely say things. I really want people to feel things, to reexamine the world around them."
Whether mainstream audiences will respond to the grittiness of "American Crime" is a crucial uncertainty. Though enjoying a loyal core audience, "The Wire" never managed to become a huge hit on the premium pay channel. Its status as one of the outstanding TV series of the modern era came mostly after its five-year run, thanks largely through critical acclaim and strong word of mouth.
"The viewing public has clearly expressed an interest in seeing diversity in their living room, but do they really want to see it treated in this heavy, serious manner?" asked Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. "What remains to be seen is what genres and formats viewers are really comfortable with when it comes to race.
"I hope they will be able to deal with an emotional project that doesn't always offer a happy ending."
"American Crime" is structured similarly to films such as "Crash" and "Babel," where a number of seemingly disconnected stories and characters come together in a single event. In this case, it's the horrific assault of a white couple living in the bedroom community of Modesto, Calif. — an attack that leaves the husband, military veteran Matt Skokie, dead, and his wife, Gwen, a former beauty queen, in critical condition.
The suspects arrested and charged with the crime are all minorities: African American meth addict Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco), heavily tattooed Mexican thug Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral) and naive Mexican American teen Tony Gutierrez (Johnny Ortiz). As the investigation unfolds, the image of the seemingly clean-cut couple comes under scrutiny, resulting in a more complicated and nuanced portrait of the show's characters.
"The issues of faith and family touch everyone," said Ridley, 49, who was raised in Wisconsin and graduated from NYU. "We wanted to tell a story that is nontraditional, using lots of tools of cinema and a style of storytelling you don't really see on television. We were able to deal with it in this show in a way that really excited me."
Quick cuts, overlapping dialogue and long scenes where little is said are part of the "American Crime" style (another example of how broadcast TV is picking up some of the tropes of cable).
But it's the show's tight focus on race that is likely to attract the most attention: "American Crime" touches on bigotry, stereotypes and racial profiling within a context that does not offer convenient explanations or resolution.
The show is a dream project for the Oscar-winning Ridley, a growing star in Hollywood. His better-known and multi-faceted works include the films "Three Kings" and the recent Jimi Hendrix biopic "Jimi: All Is At My Side," TV's "Third Watch" and the novel "Everybody Smokes in Hell." The 49-year-old is writing and producing a reboot of the Charlton Heston classic "Ben-Hur."
One of "American Crime's" main characters, Barb Hanlon (Huffman), the grieving and bitter mother of Matt Skokie, holds an antagonistic view of minorities. On hearing a Latino has been arrested for the crime, she instantly labels him "some illegal."
Tony's father, hard-working garage owner Alonzo Gutierrez (Martinez), is forced to confront his own prejudices against members of his own race. In later episodes, Regina King plays Aliyah Shadeed, a black Muslim with a deep distrust of whites who is troubled by her addict brother's deep love for a white girl.
"I believe that people will be able to see a bit of themselves in a lot of these characters," said Hutton. "In addition to race and faith, it shows how families can be very volatile at a time when they need to come together."
Ridley set "American Crime" in Modesto (the series was actually filmed in Austin because of financial considerations) for its lack of a strong identity: "It's a city that perhaps maybe you heard of, but you can't necessarily think of anything that happens there — it could be any city." He also thought it would be a good setting for the convergence of characters who live outside the city.
ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee acknowledged that putting the series on the network's schedule was stepping out on a limb a bit. But he believes that audiences will respond.
"Every show these days is a risk," Lee said. "But the risks we enjoy making the most is when the show is of high quality. And this is supremely high quality."
Ridley is striving for a sophisticated and nuanced story. He doesn't merely want to mash cultural hot buttons.
"The easiest thing I could do is to write straw men and straw women so I could knock them down," he said. "I hope there will be a segment of the audience that will say 'What's wrong with that?' and have their expectations upended."
He held up Huffman's unenlightened character as a way to explore the human complexities behind the forming of stereotypes."She espouses beliefs that are bigoted, but she's not a straight-up bigot," he said. "Those views are coming from a very specific place for her. She has things that have been ingrained in her. Those things are going to be challenged."
Seeing Huffman playing such a tightly wound character may be a revelation for viewers who know her mainly as the spunky Lynette Scalvo on "Desperate Housewives." "I would ask John, 'Is she a racist?' I'm not exactly sure," said Huffman. "She's written in a way that you have understanding and empathy for her. It's hopefully a 360-degree view of someone who has become prejudiced."
Added Martinez: "It throws back this curtain where people within their own culture say things that they would not say out loud among others. It's that level of honesty that I hope leads to open discussions that we rarely have."
Though the material may be uncomfortable, Ridley feels that "American Crime" will connect with a mainstream audience. "I honestly feel that viewers are ready for something like this, willing to devour content that challenges them. Look at the quality of TV now," he said. "We're ready for this conversation."