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Ambitious TV series casts Modesto in Everytown light

Timothy Hutton plays the father of a war vet murdered in a home-invasion robbery in Modesto in ABC’s “American Crime.”
Timothy Hutton plays the father of a war vet murdered in a home-invasion robbery in Modesto in ABC’s “American Crime.” ABC

Turns out Modesto is the Goldilocks of American cities.

Not too big, not too small – just right as the backdrop for a story about the hot-button issues of race, class, faith, sexuality, addiction and immigration. The new ABC dramatic series by Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley picked Modesto for a reason, even if the city is used mostly in name only.

Some groaned at first, and rightfully so, when they heard we would be the home for a show called “American Crime.” In the past the Modesto region has been the unfortunate home base for high-profile, true-crime cases from those involving Scott Peterson to Chandra Levy and Cary Stayner. So another show putting the city in the center of another terrible act could have been piling it on.

But what elevates “American Crime” is its ambition. For its darkly ominous name, the series has a high-minded objective. Unlike the countless crime procedurals on television that follow murder and violence as an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, “American Crime” has little interest in the mechanics of solving a case. Instead it is all about the shock waves – large and small – that reverberate around and between those left behind.

The 11-episode anthology series debuts Thursday on ABC in the plum 10 p.m. spot after the network’s soapy political hit “Scandal.” And while both shows offer big emotions and unexpected twists, “American Crime” also taps into a raw, exposed nerve of unresolved issues we face as a nation. These are the kind of topics most would rather avoid during polite dinner conversation: racism, bigotry, sexuality, addiction, zealotry.

The good news is Ridley and the writers allow the issues to unfold naturally from each character’s perspective and experience instead of marching them all in at once under a large banner called “Uncomfortable Yet Important Discussions.” But even so, the intersecting stories are intense. This isn’t relaxing viewing, and it’s designed that way.

The series opens right after a young white married couple has been brutally attacked in their Modesto home. Police quickly round up the primary and peripheral suspects in the crime – who are Latino and black. The husband, a war vet, is killed and his wife clings to life in a coma. The families of both the victims and the accused converge to sort out the pieces and navigate the justice system.

It’s sometimes exhausting, at times thrilling, almost always compelling television in the hands of a cinematically inclined creator such as Ridley. He is helped by a talented and experienced cast headlined by Emmy winner Felicity Huffman as the murdered man’s tightly wound mother and Oscar winner Timothy Hutton as his untethered father. The couple is long divorced but are not over the bitterness, or problems, that led there.

Rounding out the cast are Penelope Ann Miller and W. Earl Brown as the devoutly religious parents of the murdered man’s wife; Benito Martinez as the first-generation father of a Latino teen caught up in the crime; and Regina King as the Muslim sister of the primary suspect. The script and actors work hard and admirably to keep their characters from becoming stereotypes.

Which brings us back to Modesto’s role in this boiling cauldron of emotions, viewpoints, prejudices and preconceived notions.

Viewers likely will recognize several key landmarks from the opening scenes of the first few episodes. It’s a jolt to the senses to see the Modesto Arch, Seventh Street Bridge, Needham Overpass and D Street water tower blaze on screen – if only for a few seconds. There also are frequent references to the city, from its police department to Stanislaus Superior Court, that will no doubt perk up the ears of Central Valley residents.

But after that, there’s little to illuminate or indict the character of the city. We’re not a metropolis, we’re not a cow town. In this story we’re just a place where something bad happened – not unlike almost any place humans live because, sadly, bad things seem to be in our nature.

For a region that too often suffers from a geographical inferiority complex, nothing in “American Crime” – at least in the first few episodes available to the press – should add to our emotional baggage.

In fact, the region is portrayed almost too blandly. It’s as if the filmmakers came into the city about nine blocks off the freeway, then turned around and left again. There’s no mention of the area’s vast and important agricultural heritage and industry. This is where the fact that the vast majority of the show, including all the scenes with the cast, was shot in Austin, Texas, becomes all too apparent.

Modesto may not be a big town or a tiny town, but it’s still a town with its own distinct identity. But in “American Crime” we don’t have one, and that’s kind of the point.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

ON TELEVISION

WHAT: ‘American Crime’

WHEN: 10 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: ABC

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