How Could This Great Crime Drama Go So Wrong?

03/04/2015 04:02 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2015
BBC America

It's one of the oldest television genres in existence, but crime dramas have shown themselves to be exceptionally resilient even as the medium expands its reach and experiments with all kinds of forms, moods and stories.

This is a good thing: A finely crafted crime procedural (i.e. something better than CBS' silly "CSI: Cyber") can provide both a comforting distraction and even, on occasion, subtle social commentary. There's good reason that most sentient adults can't resist a marathon of primo "Law & Order" episodes: The most solid installments of that venerable franchise expose the frayed threads of the social contract but also offer the kinds of speedy resolutions that are evasive in real life.

Meatier, less formulaic, character-driven crime dramas are arguably even more important: They often look unflinchingly at power imbalances in distinct communities, and delve into the difficulties that individuals and societies have with formulating notions of fairness, compassion and retribution.

"Top of the Lake," "Rectify," "The Bridge," "Banshee," "Happy Valley," "Fargo," "The Missing," "Broadchurch" and "The Fall," "Fortitude," "Peaky Blinders," "True Detective" and "Justified" are complicated, occasionally fascinating crime dramas that use a range of tones and treatments to come at knotty questions about transgression, social control and catastrophic consequences. "American Crime," an ambitious new drama from ABC, and the second season of "Broadchurch," which returns Wednesday on BBC America, should sit comfortably in the same category with the rest of these worthy shows. Unfortunately, both of them fall well short of the mark.

Given how wonderful its first season was, the fact that "Broadchurch" has turned into such a muddle is the bigger disappointment. Despite the usual array of finely calibrated performances, the second season simply doesn't work, in large part because it consciously and deliberately undoes much of what was powerful about the shattering conclusion to the first season. Four episodes into Season 2, it was hard not to arrive at the conclusion that "Broadchurch" -- which was badly translated for the American market with the clunky "Gracepoint" -- should have quit while it was ahead and stopped after Season 1.

Imagine that a second season of "True Detective" featured Rust and Marty re-examining the murder case that occupied them during that show's first season; it'd be similarly strained if "Fargo" or "Top of the Lake" did the same thing. Part of the power of those stories came from the fact that they were concentrated and concluded; we can ruminate about the journeys of those characters without having them over-explained and thus drained of philosophical and spiritual mysteries. There's something to be said, of course, for sinking more deeply into a world that was built up with subtlety and skill in a show's first season, but not much is gained and a good deal is lost by undoing much of what was accomplished in the first go-round of "Broadchurch."

Season 2 follows the criminal trial of the person who was arrested at the end of the show's first season, and it works hard to cast doubt on the series of events that viewers were carefully led through in Season 1. The new episodes add characters and threads to that story in order to muddy the waters further, and relationship dynamics that were powerful in Season 1 start to seem a little rote. Inelegantly grafted to that rehash is another plot that has troubled Det. Alec Hardy (David Tennant) revisiting the prominent murder case that he botched before he arrived in Broadchurch.

It's risky for any drama to go backward, but basing the season on two pieces of old business could have paid dividends, if handled the right way. Sadly, Season 2 of "Broadchurch" is amped up and melodramatic in ways that feel clumsy and inorganic when they're not simply loud (the soundtrack is often gratingly bombastic). There's a forced, slapdash nature to most of what occurs, which is hard to take, given the delicate and thoughtful construction of Season 1. Hardy, whose health is fragile, is not a working detective anymore, and his former partner, Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), has also gone off to a lesser job, but the story forces them back together, sometimes in ways that aren't quite believable, and that's just one of many contrivances that afflict these episodes.

Season 1 of "Broadchurch" was like watching a stone dropped in a still pond: We saw every ripple travel outward and were transfixed as the waves brought unexpected flotsam to the shore. The drama was generally quiet and deliberate, and that's what made its conclusion all the more shattering: Everyone in town had to contend with the fact that the evil within their community came from a person with a prosaic and outwardly unexceptional existence. There was no Other, no unhinged outsider to blame. As in a horror story, the nightmare creature was inside the house the whole time.

But that version of "Broadchurch" wasn't a horror story, not in tone or execution. It was a sober, detailed portrait of the flawed, mostly well-meaning people in a particular community, and it's actually distressing to see this season do its best to strip the first season for parts and, in doing so, undo the emotional impact of that devastating Season 1 finale. Season 2 of "Broadchurch" is a much more conventional crime drama about who did what to whom and when: The second season pairs up a couple of fairly conventional formulas -- "Everyone Has a Secret" plus "Courtroom Drama 101" -- and awkwardly plunked on top is a fairly unexceptional slice of serial killer melodrama.

american crime

"American Crime," like "Broadchurch," wants very badly to be a serious character drama that highlights social ills and provides red meat to good actors. Neither cast, however, can make the material they're given truly work, given that the lofty ambitions of both programs rest on shaky foundations.

I've complained about how terrible most new one-hour dramas are on ABC, NBC and CBS, and with "American Crime," ABC is at least attempting to reject uninspired formula in favor of a serious attempt at substance. But "American Crime" feels every bit as contrived and self-conscious as "The Slap," NBC's stab at Something Different Because Good God, Nothing Else Is Working.

Good intentions only get you so far, and "American Crime" is simply tedious.

It's laudable that "American Crime" attempts to tell stories about death, drugs and violence with nuanced, character-driven drama, but the show's characters need to be interesting for that to work. When Timothy Hutton, Benito Martinez, Felicity Huffman and W. Earl Brown -- terrific actors all -- can't make the people they're playing even a little bit compelling, that's a big problem.

Actually, the analogue closest to "American Crime" may not be in the crime realm at all; in tone and shooting style, creator John Ridley appears to be aiming for something as atmospheric and finely observed as "Friday Night Lights." The problem is, "American Crime" is a little too reminiscent of the second season of "FNL," when a conventional crime story dragged the show down into a realm of overblown melodrama that made the whole enterprise feel turgid and off.

To its credit, "American Crime" puts race on the table as a topic that the characters confront and talk about with refreshing frankness, but the show as a whole is so predictable and lacking in depth that there's little else to recommend it. Like "Broadchurch" (and "Bosch" and almost every other crime drama ever), the show features an oily journalist who is mainly interested in stirring up trouble; like "Low Winter Sun," "American Crime" takes itself so seriously that it verges on parody at times. There's a story line about drug addicts in love that is profoundly boring; the tale of a likable Hispanic teen caught up in a criminal enterprise is better, but the pacing lagged there as well.

Without strong dramatic momentum or characters worth following, this attempt at substance is too often a slog.

"American Crime" premieres Thursday at 10:00 p.m. ET on ABC; "Broadchurch" arrives Wednesday at 10:00 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "American Crime," "Broadchurch," "Battle Creek," "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "CSI: Cyber" on the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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