When many of us reach for our television remotes, we also grab our cell phones, computers or iPads to connect to Twitter, Facebook or some other social media site to engage with millions around the world as we tune in to our favorite shows. Watching television while interacting on social media is the new normal. For many, this new form of engagement is wonderful. Yet I'm curious as to whether this constant stimulation, connection and interaction ever really allows us to "feel" what we are witnessing.
Enter Academy Award winner (12 Years a Slave) John Ridley's American Crime, a new ABC drama, which asks us to not just engage with others on social media, but to pause and engage with our hearts. Much of what we watch on television is a form of art, which has historically introduced us to many individuals, narratives, ideas and questions that challenge what we know (or think) to be true. As we engage with art, many of us experience moments of feeling uncomfortable. American Crime, set in Modesto, Calif., is a work of art that embodies this characteristic to captivate its audience in an unnerving way. As Executive Producer and creator John Ridley explains, "(the show is) edited so the audience will not disengage."
American Crime begins with the murder of a young military veteran and the brutal assault of his wife, who is subsequently hospitalized and fighting for her life. As their parents are informed of this tragic news, the audience begins to become familiar with the world of other characters connected to the murder. "Unlike most television," as Executive Producer Michael McDonald describes, "which focuses on the extremes, the poor or the privileged."
American Crime centers itself on the lives of "everyday" Americans, and shows how complex and contradictory we all can be. As John Ridley states, "We like to think that we are consistent. And yet we are not. And that's ok. After watching, I hope we all walk away knowing we are all a little of this and a little of that. Every person is complex. And complexity makes us beautiful and that's ok and that uniqueness is beautiful."
As viewers watch American Crime, seeing this "beauty" may not be immediately evident due to the uncomfortable subject matter that this drama so intentionally confronts. Salient issues including race, class, immigration, drug use, and faith are weaved throughout each episode, forcing the viewer to feel uneasy and without escape. Ridley wants this certain level of discomfort as he explains, "Discomfort is usually a sign of growth and change. I would like a level of discomfort. This is not business as usual or story telling as usual. This show will help us move out of our ruts. "
As our country celebrates 50 years since Selma and continues to brace for legislation on voting rights, immigration and marriage equality, moving out of our individual ruts and static thinking about how we engage with others is exactly what we need to achieve. As Michael McDonald explains, "I want people to examine and reflect on our own biases and get to a place where we can accept each other."
Acceptance and forgiveness cannot happen without being self-reflective. American Crime, in many ways, holds up a mirror to us all, causing internal and hopefully external awareness to occur around the ways we care for each other. John Ridley explains, "We all carry biases. Can we see them and evolve?" That evolution is only made possible through feelings of discomfort. As we all tune in to watch American Crime while squirming in our seats and interrogating our prejudices, we should embrace the words of African American author Pearl Cleage, "Discomfort is always a necessary part of enlightenment," and never turn away.