Panelists see a true reflection of Modesto’s ills in ‘American Crime’

Caitlin Gerard plays murder suspect Aubry Taylor in ABC’s “American Crime,” which is set in Modesto.
Caitlin Gerard plays murder suspect Aubry Taylor in ABC’s “American Crime,” which is set in Modesto. ABC

As Modesto gets ready for its national TV close-up, the question remains: Will we like what we see?

“American Crime,” the new dramatic series set in Modesto, will premiere Thursday on ABC. Earlier this week, in an attempt to answer the question at hand, The Modesto Bee invited a diverse group of community leaders and activists to an advance screening of the high-profile, high-intensity series about the aftermath of a violent crime.

The show, by Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley, is the first major network series to expressly and exclusively use Modesto as its backdrop, even though most of the filming was done in Austin, Texas. The 11-episode season tackles hot-button issues including race, class, immigration, addiction, sexuality and more as it follows the families of the victims and the accused through the investigation and trial.

The pilot episode lays out the details of the crime (a violent attack on a non-Latino white couple that left the husband dead and his wife in a coma), brings in the grieving family members and introduces the primary and peripheral suspects – who are all Latino or black. Modesto is mentioned several times, and a few key landmarks can be seen in the opening of the episode.

Many on our panel said they were looking forward to the show, and Modesto’s possible portrayal, before seeing the series.

“Right off the bat, before seeing the show, I was very excited about it,” said Lopez, who is in his second term on the council. “I was very excited that hopefully there were some sort of positives we could take away from the show and being mentioned. It’s going to be in every, or a lot of, households in America, and they’re going to hear about Modesto.”

Afterward, reaction was split, with about half enjoying the series and saying they would watch again and others saying they strongly disliked it and would not continue watching.

Most agreed that Modesto was Modesto mostly in name only. Shots of the Modesto Arch, railway, water tower and more can be seen on screen. But once the action and acting begins, it’s all elsewhere. That “anytown” depiction shows viewers a fictitious Modesto airport, hospital and courtroom alongside fictitious seedy clubs and drug dens.

Several see accuracies

Chief Carroll said the series is accurate in ways some people would rather not acknowledge. Two of the main characters are meth addicts, and the show is unsparing in its depiction of the extent to which they go to get high. Another character appears to be involved in gangs and other illegal activities.

“We forget, we’re a good-sized city. We’re a large city. We still think we’re a small city, but this is a big city and we have big-city problems and big-city crime, and we forget that a lot. So I’m not really shocked by what I saw,” Carroll said. “I think there are a lot of people that walk around blind in our community. This (show) is Hollywood; this is a dramatization of everything. But there’s stuff like that, that happens every day in the city. … We’ve had a drug problem in Modesto for decades.”

The name of the show, others said, tips viewers off that this will not be a sunshiny depiction of the city. Rolicheck, whose group helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said she liked what she saw and will keep watching.

“I wouldn’t have expected it necessarily to point out the good things in Modesto because that’s not the point. I don’t think it’s a comment necessarily on Modesto,” she said. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening for people. There are a lot of people who it is not their experience to see graphic drug use and violence and everything that kind of goes with that. It certainly felt like it was real. My hope is it makes people think about why and how people get in those situations. … Maybe it’ll start a conversation.”

Black, whose nonprofit arts group helps those recovering from addiction and mental health issues, said the unglamorous depiction of drug use was particularly welcome. “It’s depicted in a real, tragic way, which in fact it is,” he said. “It’s tragic that lives are like that. And lives of people are like that currently in the city of Modesto.”

The way the show tackled race, and some of the characters’ personal biases, also rung true. Valladolid, whose nonprofit group El Concilio provides services to the Latino community, said the struggles between the strict, first-generation Mexican immigrant father and his more independent, teen children felt authentic. Other scenes exposed preconceived stereotypes and deep rifts in ideology.

“I think it’s the reality here. If you really look at it, it truly is happening. We can’t live in a bubble; these things really are happening,” said Valladolid, who plans to continue watching. “We work with the realignment population, and this is what is happening, this is what they go through. It’s happening here, downtown. In our parking lot.”

A responsibility to watch

It is precisely that prickly subject matter that makes the series important, said Crosby, who also serves on the Modesto Police-Clergy Council.

“One of the reasons why I have to watch it, I have to be able to set forth commentary, is because it pulls us out of our comfort zone,” Crosby said. “Sometimes these things come, they rub us the wrong way. They have prickly pears on them, but everyone at this table is called to a higher level of responsibility in this community. … I think it’s our responsibility to watch. It’s our city. I don’t want someone discussing something about me and then as a leader in the community get asked for commentary. One of the worst things you can get from a pastor is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Lopez, though, said he doesn’t plan to watch because – even if some depictions are realistic – he watches TV to get away from reality.

Kaanon, whose nonprofit foundation awards grants and scholarships in the community, was similarly disappointed by the show and will not watch because it fails to portray any of the positive ways Modesto has been moving forward.

“I’ve been saying this for a while: There’s a very hopeful, emerging narrative in Modesto. I think this is one more external depiction that by no means devalues what we’re doing to build up our community,” she said. “For too long, we’ve believed the hype about Modesto being on all the bad lists. What I am saying is more and more people are saying enough is enough, that doesn’t reflect all the good things that happen in this community. … This drama, this work of fiction, really doesn’t take away from any of that.”

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

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