Even by the high standards of this age of exploration and discovery, Thursday night is a pretty big night for television.
Two shows are poised to debut that are not only admirably ambitious but also move their respective networks several giant steps out of their comfort zones and into space previously reserved for prestige cable.
John Ridley, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of "12 Years a Slave," brings his highly anticipated "American Crime" to ABC, while "Homeland's" Gideon Raff has teamed with Tim Kring ("Heroes") to create "Dig" for USA.
Though tonally divergent — "American Crime" is a gritty and politically intense examination of character, while "Dig" is more of a roof-leaping, international action thriller — each uses murder to study intersecting cultures in a demographically diverse region. And each employs well-known and accomplished casts to do it.
But where one pushes against the notion of conspiracy, the other embraces it.
With its frank examination of race, gender and class, "American Crime" is the more thematically provocative show, a gratifying breakthrough for television and a truly golden child of the age. Though Ridley uses the newly minted anthology style of "True Detective"— each 11-episode season focusing on a different crime and with a new cast — his gaze is wider, more critical, yet less judgmental.
There are no moody metaphors in "American Crime," no meandering monologues. Instead, the narrative follows slipstream portraits of many lives, framed by the character's own definition of context.
The crime of the first season is a brutal home-invasion attack on Matt and Gwen Skokie, a young white couple living in Modesto. Matt is killed, while Gwen spends the first four episodes clinging to life.
We learn the details of the crime along with Matt's father, Russ (Timothy Hutton). With stringy hair and the careful air of a man struggling with stability, Russ is a former gambler who spent years rebuilding his relationship with his son, a connection still limited to Sunday night phone calls.
Still in shock, Russ is thrust back into contact with his ex-wife, Barb (Felicity Huffman), a woman tightly wound around bitterness. Toward Russ, toward her past, toward a society she believes values white lives less than others.
These "other" lives include an interracial couple, Aubrey (Caitlin Gerard) and Carter (Elvis Nolasco), bonded by love and addiction; teenage Tony (Johnny Ortiz) chafing against the high expectations of his father (Benito Martinez); and the young thug Hector (Richard Cabral), whom we meet as he is using the dead man's credit cards.
Carter, Tony and Hector are soon arrested in the murder, thrusting Russ, Barb and Gwen's parents, Tom (W. Earl Brown) and Eve (Penelope Ann Miller), into the imperfect world of jurisprudence and media attention.
Other series have chronicled the effect of a crime on the victim's family, but few have done so with such intensity. This is not a mystery so much as a mosaic; Ridley's writing and direction create worlds for each of his characters (the scenes of Aubrey and Carter's drug-fueled bubble are particularly affecting) that are separate yet still adjacent.
But it's the level of performance, particularly from Hutton, Huffman, Miller and, later Regina King, who plays Carter's sister, that prevents the politics and cultural statements of "American Crime" from overpowering its story, which may be the series' true breakthrough.
Equally unique, at least among the USA lineup of character-driven procedurals, "Dig" is more entertainment than education, though one will no doubt feel compelled to Google at least some of the show's iconography. Combining the sort of conspiracy theory that made Dan Brown rich with the endless fascination of Jerusalem, Raff and Kring set their story at the nexus of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
It opens with a group of Hasidic Jews trudging through the Norwegian snow to witness the birth of a red calf. And while it would be easy to say "you had me at Hasidic Jews trudging through Norwegian snow," things just get better.
There's also a cult leader (David Costabile) raising a boy in seclusion in the middle of the New Mexico desert, an archaeologist who may or may not be seeking the ark of the covenant, and Anne Heche as the complicated head of the FBI in Jerusalem.
Most important, however, there's Jason Isaacs, heartbroken and unleashed. As FBI agent Peter Connelly, in Jerusalem to recover from personal tragedy, Isaacs roils with pain and the ongoing curse of clarity.
So withdrawn and taciturn that his only friend is his supervisor (and sometime-lover) Lynn Monahan (Heche), Peter is, of course, constantly in conflict with local authorities. Including and especially Det. Golan Cohen (Ori Pfeffer), with whom he will, naturally, partner to investigate the murder of a young American.
Which leads them ever closer to a series of events that, as concurrently unfolding narratives reveal, add up to complicated and possibly apocalyptic conspiracy. (The ancient breastplate of a high priest is involved.)
Although designed for high-octane enjoyment — marketplace chase scenes, shootouts, enigmatic zealots, mysterious talismans — "Dig" takes its time, weaving its various plots together in a way both tantalizing and occasionally maddening. Certain scenes in early episodes make it clear that those involved in the conspiracy are willing to go to Any Lengths, though by the end of the third hour, we have no idea for what.
Tension is good, but the longer you build up any mystery, the more shocking and clever it dang well better be — the Grail was a woman! Soylent Green is people! Brody still isn't dead! (No, wait, wrong show.)
The religious overlap — both Christian and Jewish extremists appear to be involved; the word is still out on the Muslims — lends "Dig" a certain resonance and depth, just as the location work in Jerusalem gives it authenticity. But in the end, it's about a man who needs to save the world to save himself. Or maybe it's the other way around.
Either way, "Dig" promises to be a whole lot of crazy fun to watch, proof that TV can be as wild and exciting as it is political and penetrating. And all on the same night.
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under age 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 1