Pat Clark

Pat Clark: ABC all in with Modesto-set drama

Whether Modestans will like or dislike the new series “American Crime,” it appears to be an odds-on favorite of the show’s network, ABC.

You don’t stack the deck by giving a new show a lead-in from your highest card unless you’re aiming for a big payoff, after all. It’s a little surprising given the tenor of the series and its bold look at race and race relations.

You also don’t seek out a talent like John Ridley to create, write, produce and direct unless you’re all in with a series. Ridley is the man behind last year’s Oscar-winning film “12 Years a Slave.” (Look for a story and full review of “American Crime” in The Bee on Sunday from writer Marijke Rowland, who recently spoke in depth with Ridley about the show.)

“American Crime” debuts Thursday, right after the queen of the ABC lineup, “Scandal,” and in the spot formerly held by the new princess, “How To Get Away With Murder,” which finished its first season this week. The new show is getting a major social media push and repeated on-air marketing from the network. You could not have missed the ads during the Oscars if you’d tried.

Modesto provides the setting for Season 1 of the 11-episode anthology series – think “American Horror Story” or “True Detective.” The show is a slowly unfolding tale of what appears on the surface to be a home-invasion robbery in which a man is killed and his wife is attacked.

At its core, however, the show is about race and biases. It’s pretty unflinching, uncomfortably so at times, and comes at the issue from a variety of angles – from Latinos, blacks, whites, those without bias, those with bias, and even those who have biases about others within their own cultures.

Four episodes into the show – which I was able to view thanks to a screener from ABC – it’s clearly a daring endeavor that’s landing with an unwitting timeliness, given the national discussion taking place on race and crime and police in the aftermath of a series of high-profile shootings.

It’s not based on a true story, so Modestans can relax – four episodes in, at any rate – about any comparisons to or mentions of the notorious real crimes that sadly have put our city on the national 24-hour news cycle in the past.

Still, Modesto is not totally a bit player in the series – even though it’s not exactly Modesto. The show was shot mostly in Texas. Nevertheless, the opening credits don’t just feature Modesto; Modesto is the opening credits, which provide plenty of familiar sites.

Because of the nature of the story line, a good portion of the setting that would be Modesto is a little more gritty than some might be used to seeing on a daily basis. Which isn’t to say such areas don’t exist here. We all know they do. Will it be disappointing for Modestans to see meth dens, dive bars and impoverished neighborhoods instead of the college area, the Gallo Center or Del Rio depicted?

Only if you set out to be critical. Remember, the story being told is about crime and people who struggle to get by, who are marginalized and who are drug addicts. It’s not supposed to be pretty. And let’s not pretend we aren’t fighting a tremendous meth problem in this region.

But it’s not all ugly and, frankly, Modesto doesn’t come off looking any worse than any other city depicted in your average crime drama, including the major metropolises. New York’s underbelly is a favorite TV and film setting, for example, as is the seedier side of San Francisco – and we all know those cities are two of the most beautiful in the world.

The production pedigree that “American Crime” comes with isn’t to be ignored; John Ridley is just the tip of the iceberg, albeit an impressive and talented tip. The main stars of the show include Oscar winner Timothy Hutton and Emmy winner Felicity Huffman, so there are no slouches here.

Ridley and the rest of his talented team also put a fresh take on that average crime drama: police and lawyers are secondary characters. The show is about the families and the effect the attack has on them.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Season 1 arc plays out on the series. It’ll be a long wait until Episode 5. I’m also curious how the show will be received by national critics and in the ratings.

It’s not exactly easy viewing, after all, whether you’re from Modesto or not. ABC has taken a big gamble with the tenor of this midseason show – the kind of gamble usually seen on cable rather than broadcast television. But with that pedigree and that time slot, the network wisely has hedged its bets.

Reach Scene editor Pat Clark at pclark@modbee.com.

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