A crime is about to put Modesto back on national television, but this time it’s a fictitious one.
The city is the setting for the new ABC drama series “American Crime,” set to air during the network’s upcoming 2014-15 season. The show from Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley will focus on one crime through the investigation, arrest and trial and how it affects the community. The series, which will premiere midseason, stars Emmy-winner Felicity Huffman and Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton leading a multi-ethnic cast of veterans and newcomers.
The drama will follow the crime, the violent attack on a young white couple in their home that leaves the husband dead, while tackling the issues of race, class and gender politics. The series pilot features a handful of opening shots of Modesto, including the downtown arch, Kansas Avenue-Needham Street overpass and D Street water tower. But the series itself is being filmed in Austin, Texas, according to ABC spokesman Edwin Escobar. (see trailer below)
The official ABC synopsis reads:
“All over the news are reports about a young couple in Modesto, California, who were attacked in their home. The case sends shock waves into the community, stirring up tensions across racial lines in this gritty drama.”
At the broadcast network’s upfront presentations for advertisers in May, ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee called the series the channel’s “biggest swing of the year” and said he could “not be more proud of ‘American Crime.’ ” Los Angeles Times has dubbed the series “ambitious” and New York Magazine’s entertainment site Vulture called it the network’s “prestige drama.”
Representatives for ABC and series creator Ridley were not available to comment on why Modesto was chosen as the setting for the drama. In the first episode, several references to the city are made, including to the Modesto Police Department, the Miss Modesto Pageant and a nonexistent Valley Hospital of Modesto.
For local law enforcement, having a crime – even a fictional one – put the spotlight on Modesto has drawn mixed reactions.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson was troubled after watching the trailer for the series.
“It’s not an accurate reflection of our community and the people who live here,” he said in an email response to The Bee. “It’s a sensationalistic, inaccurate media portrayal of fictitious crime in our community that exploits victims of crime and our community. Given the challenges we face in public safety such as addiction, mental illness, the unemployment rate and quality-of-life issues, you have to ask yourself the question, why Modesto?”
“American Crime” isn’t the first show to make Modesto the home base for make-believe mayhem. The FX series “Sons of Anarchy,” about a band of outlaw bikers, is set in a fictitious Central Valley city and has made mention of Modesto and Stockton. An episode of the CBS crime series “Criminal Minds” swung through Modesto as the team of FBI profilers tried to capture a serial killer who was murdering victims along the railroad tracks.
On a lighter note, in 2009, Modesto was the epicenter of a meteor strike that brought about mutant powers and an alien invasion in the DreamWorks animated family film “Monsters vs. Aliens.”
Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said setting the series in the city does not have to reflect badly on the community.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I am not really worried about it. You don’t want any show to make the city look bad. I think we get kicked enough as it is. But I think it can apply just about anywhere. When you look at the trailer, this could be anywhere, USA.”
Carroll said the Modesto Police Department has been contacted by various television productions over the years for information and collaboration on shows. He said a few months ago the department was approached about a new series, but he is not sure if it was associated with “American Crime.” Still, the department’s position has been largely to turn down such requests.
Modesto Police Department uniforms can be seen in the pilot episode, albeit with the department’s old gold badges and patches. The city changed to silver stars and silver-and-blue logos last month.
“I said, tongue in cheek, thank God we changed those,” Carroll said. “We look at (show requests) show by show. ‘Cops’ has asked to work with us. But if it is looking at crimes or things like that – they want violence, drugs and the like – I am not interested in perpetuating those stereotypes of the city. I think we have a pretty good city. We have our problems, but I don’t think shows like that help us out.”
The “American Crime” pilot episode, which was made available to screen for the press via the ABC media site, sets up the series for a long, tough look at racial and economic issues. The victim is a white Iraq War veteran, and those connected with the crime range from a first-generation immigrant Latino family to a biracial couple addicted to meth.
Series producer, writer and director Ridley, who took home the best adapted screenplay Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” in March, said during the upfront presentations that in coming to ABC, “the only mandate I was given was to be bold.”
“This challenges ideas about race in a way typically not done on television,” he told The Hollywood Reporter during the presentation.
Ridley, who is also a novelist, previously wrote the screenplays for the satirical war drama “Three Kings” with George Clooney, the George Lucas-financed Tuskegee Airmen project “Red Tails” and the blaxploitation spoof “Undercover Brother.” His historical drama “12 Years a Slave,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, earned nine Oscar nominations and took home three, including best picture.
Carroll said he plans to watch the series, at least initially, to see how Modesto is depicted. He said Modesto’s reputation as a perennial placer on “Worst Cities” lists for things such as crime, jobs and the economy have garnered the community unfortunate attention over the years. Real-life, high-profile crimes such as the Scott Peterson murder case in 2002 and Chandra Levy’s disappearance in 2001 have added to that perception.
“We always seem to end up on the bottom of whatever list happens to be, or at the top of bad lists,” Carroll said. “Sometimes lists don’t mean everything. If you look at our neighborhoods and neighbors, we’d be a lot worse off if we didn’t have a bunch of good people who make great neighbors. That never comes out in lists.”
No premiere date has been given for “American Crime,” but as a midseason show, it should debut in late 2014 or early 2015. Until then, Carroll said, his hope is that the series shows Modesto as being similar to any other city – its good and its bad.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of,” he said. “But we’ll see what they do.”