THE SERIES "American Crime"

WHEN | WHERE Thursday at 10 p.m. on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Russ Skokie (Timothy Hutton) gets the call in the middle of the night. Cops in Modesto, California, believe his son, Matt, has been murdered in a home invasion. His daughter-in-law, Gwen, is also near death. Families of the victims converge on this small city in the Central Valley, due east of San Francisco. Estranged wife Barb (Felicity Huffman) is grief stricken, but angry -- why did the cops call Russ first? Then, the parents of Gwen, Eve (Penelope Ann Miller) and Tom (W. Earl Brown) arrive. Are there suspects?, the parents demand.

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There are, or shortly will be: Tony GutiƩrrez (Johnny Ortiz) who has problems with his own father, Alonzo (Benito Martinez); gangbanger Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral), and Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco), a former model, now junkie, who's living in a flophouse with his girlfriend, Aubrey (Caitlin Gerard). He is black, she is white and -- after he is arrested -- the Nation of Islam decides to help him. The lawyer, Aliyah Shadeed (Regina King), has conditions, however.

MY SAY "American Crime" is about so many things, that's it's difficult to say which "thing" stands above all. So, for the sake of argument and time, let's go with this: It's about what people see, or perceive, when they see other people, and how someone's self-image, or self-delusion, is bound to that perception.

That perception can be about someone they love -- for example, a daughter, or a brother, or a son -- or it can be about someone they're trying to pin a murder conviction on. "American Crime" isn't simply about race, or race relations or racial bias -- although creator John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave") certainly explores that -- but about something even deeper and more elemental to the human condition.

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It's also about people groping, half-blindly, toward an understanding of their lives, and -- of necessity -- falling short.

In other words, "American Crime" is like nothing you've ever seen on ABC. The ambitions are grand here, but never once grandiose, while the first four episodes indicate that they will be met by the end of the 11-episode run. This is often a stirring and deeply felt portrait of people in an extended state of crisis. You want them to find peace, but doubt that they will.

Hutton's Russ is the guy who's spent a lifetime climbing out of the hole he dug: Eyes rheumy, hair fraught, his face is an open book of disappointment. Huffman's Barb is rigid and desperately self-regulating, while her default response to anything disagreeable is simply . . . to walk away. Every other character is so precisely drawn that we can see them vividly -- their tragedy is that they can't even begin to see themselves.


And yes, "American Crime" is about race, too. These suspects are caught in this particular net because some evidence points to them -- "them," in this instance, being those who have gang or drug ties and just happen to be people of color. But the rest of the evidence turns out to be worthless, leaving the families back where they started -- full of anger, doubt, and even self-recrimination.

"American Crime" doesn't have much interest in casting blame, or eviscerating "the system." It's far too compassionate for that, and too curious. This series actually seems to have a genuine desire to understand the human heart.