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Lover of all sorts of TV and film. Virtually no end to what I'll sit through or talk about. Join the conversation! And on Twitter @stevgor_

Every once in a while a truly compelling series comes along. It demands to be seen as it does so much more than simply entertain. It moves you. It informs you. It challenges you. It’s the type of that so many have been asking for, for various reasons, but upon being given just that, they turn a blind eye.

The upcoming third season of the ABC Studios series American Crime looks like it’s ready to draw you in with complex issues and moral questions, all the while giving you an opportunity to look at the world from several different perspectives. You may even discover that broadcast TV can still consistently deliver well-made content in a single series.

Issue Advocacy

Season One (ABC)
Season One (ABC)

The hallmark of this series, created by John Ridley, is the types of issues tackled. While there are several issues that are typically the focal point of any given season, that doesn’t stop Ridley and his team of writers, among the various creative voices involved in bringing this series to life, from weaving many others in and out of the limited number of episodes of a given season. In past seasons, issues such as race, class, sexual assault, and the justice system have been explored. Along with those, issues such as drug use and sexuality came in as just as important, but almost in a supporting manner. What made the presentations of these issues, and many others that I may have missed or forgotten, and how very well defined characters responded to them work, was that there was never always a clear idea of what was right and wrong. While that may sound strange and contrary to what you know, it makes sense when you think about it from a narrative point of view. Yes, certain issues, like whether or not ones mother is a racist and in denial, are easy to spot, and it wouldn’t be hard to get a consensus on this, but often times it’s not as clear or simple. Whether it’s clear or not, the exploration doesn’t stop there. You’re given numerous chances to look at the characters and see how and why they may or may not be responding to something. In so many ways, Ridley and his writers are making you do some actual work. They won’t just hand it to you. We also see this in a different narrative form. What the truth is. So many questions are posed, but not all get answers. You have enough information, now it’s your turn to make as informed a decision as you possibly can. Maybe it’ll come quickly, or maybe it won’t come at all. Perhaps you’ll be satisfied with your conclusions, or you could find yourself having a back and forth conversation as you continue to deconstruct all that was presented to you in that season.

With this third season, based on the trailer, it appears that audiences will be exploring the world of labor, workers’ rights, and even, if that small bit of the trailer is any indication, addiction. I have a feeling that labor, and its many types, and the rights of the individual worker, will take center stage. So much seems to happen, most of it negative, of course, that all points back to how those that do manual labor are treated. I can’t say I wasn’t shocked and a bit disturbed. I was. If I’m already responding like this from a short trailer, how am I going to respond when watching the entire season? I’m also wondering, what other issues could be present, even in small and quick flashes, but just as dramatic and impactful? Looking back on what I said in the previous paragraph, I’m curious and excited to see what Ridley and his writers have planned. It’s certainly one of the reasons I fell in love with this show and hope others give it a chance.

Speaking of responding, I can’t skip this part. The responses you have, will shape how you watch this show, and yes, interact. It’s not an interactive show, in whatever other way that term can take on, but you can’t really avoid getting involved. You’re not so much invited to participate, as thrust right in. You’re just another person in this particular world. One who’s witnessing all sides and forming an opinion. Think less astral projection and more Charles Dickens. When I first went into this series with season one, around Christmas of 2015, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that many critics had praised it so highly. The surprise came when I found myself repeatedly pushing pause on a given episode, and having a conversation with myself on what I’d just witnessed. Sometimes this would go on for several minutes. With season two I used the commercial breaks for this, and even then, I wasn’t done thinking. I was taking the many views expressed, some I already knew and agreed with, and turning them inwards. I wasn’t so much forcing myself to reevaluate everything I thought I believed in, but wanting to. I couldn’t stop myself. It just happened. I wanted to see if I could learn something and maybe incorporate it into the way I perceived any and all of the issues depicted, or the way I argued about them.

To get a response like this, each and every week, and be entertained and amazed by the performances, is nothing short of brilliant. It truly is a rare feat for that to be achieved time and again.

Character Study

Season One(ABC)
Season One(ABC)

Having a series tackle serious and important issues is great, but if it weren’t for the incredible performances, from the various talented actors that appear in this series, none of it would mean that much. Each actor, as is the anthology formula, plays different characters each season. Which is why, as we head into season three, once more audiences will witness powerful and nuanced work from Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor and Richard Cabral. Each character they’ve played thus far has been as deep, complex, and flawed as the other, and has managed to skirt the line between good and bad. Because of this, you’re left to determine where you believe each one falls, particularly when you weigh the overall narrative and many subplots of a given season. Again, Ridley and co. don’t want you to be a passive audience member.

The thing that makes these characters and performances so great, isn’t my say so, which hopefully carries a little bit of weight, is that like with the issues themselves, you respond. Mind you, that’s really the hope of any show. Here, it’s not because you’re only responding to the issues, and barely looking at the characters that are making it possible for the many issues to be exemplified. At least, I hope not. It’s that you’re able to see them. Maybe not agree or understand them, but see and make some sort of effort based on that. This is truly where the actors work hard for their money and for the audience.

For instance, take Huffman’s characters. When it came to Huffman’s character in both seasons, I was appalled. In different ways she managed to almost be equally vile. But, she believed deep down, that what she was doing or believing was the right thing. Denial or blame was a key motivator. Sure Huffman had moments with each character where you’d want to or could feel sorry for her, but moments later, you’d think of her as the worst person around. She’s not an anti-hero, she’s just as flawed, slightly (or largely) misguided, but she’s trying to do her best with what she knows. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t hate her with all your might. The same goes for every character, and depending on which season you’re watching, the response you feel could be drastically different. There are so many sides and areas to explore, that when it comes to figuring out whom you like most and why, or why you don’t and why you think they’re wrong, it requires more than one look. The thing about these characters, they’re created and brought to life to resemble real life. It’s messy, and no one person can ever truly agree on any given issue. Here’s hoping we get more of these types of complex explorations of character.

Along with the amazing actors I’ve already mentioned the trailer gave quick glimpses into at least three other actors who’ll be flexing their acting chops. Sandra Oh, Cherry Jones, Dallas Roberts and Benito Martinez each made brief appearances in the trailer, so there’s a lot to look forward to. Oh, I feel, is the biggest mystery. She's clearly knowledgeable about labor and the many issues that arise, but who is she? Is she a government worker, advocate, what? Who is she lecturing to? Martinez appeared in some episodes the first season and one the previous, but for Jones and Roberts, they’re newbies. I’ve enjoyed the smattering of each of their work, and know that with good material they can work wonders. While I’m not too sure yet where Jones or Roberts will fall on the moral scales or the sides of good and evil, I know they’ll each sell me on why they’re justified in whatever actions they take. If it isn’t apparent yet, it’s just how this series goes. Martinez, on the other hand, at least for now, seems to be solely focused on helping workers who are being mistreated. While it seems he’s stumbled upon this place, it can’t be just by chance. What’s his purpose? Then, when things start to get out of hand all over, that’s where the fun will truly begin. What will you believe by the end of episode one? Where will the conversations you have, either with yourself or others, who watch, take you? Will you agree with the choices any of the characters make, even if they’re for the right reasons, but could result in some negative consequence?

Ratings Challenged

Season Two (ABC)
Season Two (ABC)

The worst part about this excellent series is its audience, or lack thereof. It’s a shame not many people seem to actually be watching it when it airs. When it hits Netflix or the network’s app, or Hulu after it airs, that’s good to some extent, but it’s not the same thing. Well, it certainly isn’t to me. Yes, I’ve done my fair share of DVR-ing or watching something on Hulu, but there’s definitely something deeply satisfying about being able to watch a show live. Perhaps it’s just the knowledge you won’t have to go back and catch up, as you’ve already got fifteen other shows to catch up on, or other life events. Regardless, it’s this modern approach to watching TV, which I understand, but it seems to be hurting the show’s ratings a little. I say a little, because when you look at the numbers, it doesn’t appear that the DVR or Hulu watchers are hurting it all that much. tracked both season’s ratings, and by season’s end, came up with an average number as well. The season one average, as listed by the website, was 4.98 million viewers and a 1.16 in the 18-49 demo. Don’t worry if that confused you as I barely understood what I just wrote. The thing you need to know, neither is very good. Fast forward to the end of season two and the website says the average number of viewers was 3.79 million, with a 0.94 in the demo. A pretty big decline, all things considered. To save you having to read more numbers, unless you want to, which could possibly only lead to more confusion than there already is, I’ll summarize another way. Once season one dropped below 5 million viewers, it never again passed that. It fluctuated in between, but always going up and down a smidge. Season two dropped below 4 million, and again, never recovered. The season also fluctuated in the middle, with slight increases and decreases week to week. The only upside to this, at least the numbers were relatively consistent. This may be something that’s quite possibly great for basic cable or a premium cable network, but less so for broadcast TV.

While I could show you numbers or charts all day long, with some comprehension on each side, it doesn’t answer the most important question. Why aren’t more people watching? This show is that good and deserves that much attention. Yes, the issues and storylines are that dark and complicated, but compelling and rewarding. None of the drama is forced or over the top nor are the performances. It’s measured. Every bit of what you see has a purpose. So why aren’t more people tuning in? I ask this also, because this type of daring and original content isn’t produced that often. It’s certainly not produced on any truly successful level, including ratings. I applaud the network for keeping this show on the air, but I can’t help but wonder why. Do the top executives truly not care that the ratings are repeatedly this bad? Is the fact that they can, and do, drive conversations on multiple issues enough? Or, which I definitely can’t help but think, do network execs only want to say their network has diverse content? If this were any other show, that answer(s) might be easy to find. These ones may never be.

As mysterious as the network heads’ motives may be, so long as this show remains on the air, I’ll continue to watch and see if there’s some new way in which I can be challenged. Some new way in which I can learn, even one new thing. When it comes to TV shows, they don’t have to be either entertaining or smart and engaging. They can be both. They should be both. Perhaps if we started there, then viewing habits could change, and more people would tune into uncomfortable and daring shows like this.

To read more of my thoughts on this series, see my previously written piece.

Season Premier: March 12, 2017 on ABC

Creator: John Ridley

Starring Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Lili Taylor, Richard Cabral, Sandra Oh and Regina King

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