"American Crime," premiering March 5 on ABC, is being touted as an innovative series for spending an entire season focusing on a single murder case, taking a wide-ranging look at the victims, the accused, and their extended families as a way of taking a broader look at the dynamics of a whole community. Of course, this isn't the first time it's been tried, but it could mark the first time that the approach actually works on network TV.
"American Crime" has secured a high-powered cast, including Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman. Nonetheless, after this season is over, the show will move on to a new case next year, with a new cast -- should the show prove a success and earn a renewal.
If that sounds a lot like HBO's "True Detective," that's not an accident. As the old joke goes, imitation is the sincerest form of television. In fact, series that devote an entire season to a single murder case have become increasingly common on cable, from "Broadchurch" to "The Killing." But they haven't been that successful on the networks; witness Fox's recent attempt to Americanize "Broadchurch" as "Gracepoint."
In fact, ABC tried this experiment a couple times, more than two decades ago. Most famously, there was David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," whose investigation of a teen's murder exposed the dirty, sometimes supernatural secrets of an entire town. The show was an enormous sensation -- until it resolved its central murder mystery. What to do then? The writers had to invent new crimes and new villains to come up with an excuse to keep visiting FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) from leaving town. The show petered out in its second season, ending on an unresolved cliffhanger. Yes, Lynch is bringing the show back after a quarter-century, but on Showtime.
ABC's other effort was Steven Bochco's "Murder One," centering on the legal defense team of a wealthy murder suspect who had plenty to hide. This was a much more conventional drama, lacking the metaphysical murk of "Twin Peaks." Plus, in real life, the nation had just spent months riveted to the O.J. Simpson case, so the premise didn't seem that much of a stretch. Nonetheless, the show abandoned the conceit partway through the first season, shifting focus to a second defendant. In the second and final season, the focus was on three unrelated cases.
More recently, in 2006, Fox and NBC both launched series, each dealing with a single high-profile abduction case. Fox's was called "Vanished," NBC's "Kidnapped." (The former featured Penelope Ann Miller, the latter Timothy Hutton, both of whom are to be regulars on the initial season of "American Crime.") Neither show lasted a full season.
What's changed since then that makes "American Crime" seem like a wiser gamble? Most if it has to do with the changes in the way we watch television now. Between DVRs, DVD sets, and streaming, we can binge-watch now in ways that were much more difficult even nine years ago when "Vanished" and "Kidnapped" failed. We can go back and look at details we may have missed, and we can discuss the episodes the morning after they're broadcast or even while they're airing with the hive mind of our preferred social media platforms. So we're much more comfortable with the level of nuance and detail common in single-case series than we were a decade or two ago.
We've already seen how the process works, having been trained in how to watch such shows by all the single-case series that have proliferated on cable. And networks too, sort of. We did get "Gracepoint" on Fox this fall, and we got "How to Get Away With Murder" on ABC, which, along with standard case-of-the-week plotting, offered a single murder mystery as its main plot throughout the fall, dropping clues and surprise revelations all the way.
In a way, real life and tabloid journalism have trained us as well. Ever since O.J. and the rise of what was then called Court TV (which has since mutated into TruTv), we've been accustomed to following high-profile murder and kidnapping cases for months at a time. It's why Nancy Grace has had a nightly show for a decade on HLN, which used to be a general news channel. It's why the "Serial" podcast became an addictive pop culture phenomenon.
Even so, "American Crime" has its work cut out for it. For one thing, as a network show, it's likely to avoid the extremes of sexuality and violence that have characterized similar shows on cable, so it may have a harder time grabbing viewers by the throat. It's also likely to avoid the dense thicket of symbolism, obscure literary references, and philosophical musings that characterized the first season of "True Detective." That sort of thing doesn't play as well when you have to pause every eight minutes or so to sell deodorant. Finally, "American Crime" promises to take a hard look at class and racial differences. Many Americans are squeamish about even acknowledging that these differences exist, much less watching TV shows that address them unflinchingly. Where's the escapist fun in that?
By the way, USA launched "Dig" on the same night. That series, examining a single murder case in Jerusalem that turns out to have tremendous repercussions of a Biblical nature, has a lot of "Da Vinci Code"/Indiana Jones-style histrionics and conspiracy-mongering to dazzle and distract viewers. It's ambitious in scale but still essentially escapist. In other words, it's a series that would seem to be suited to network TV as well as basic cable.
If "American Crime" is to succeed in this otherwise uncharted territory, and if it manages to do so without borrowing the kind of sensationalism likely to characterize "Dig," it'll mark a new level of sophistication, not just for network TV, but also for the supposedly lowest common denominator viewers who watch network TV.