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New ABC drama probes an ‘American Crime’

As anyone thus affected knows, the impact of a crime can be far-reaching and sometimes surprising.

John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” is using that framework as the creator-writer-director and an executive producer of an ABC drama series. Premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday, “American Crime” covers a cross-section of lives tied to the home-invasion murder of a military veteran in Modesto, Calif., with Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (“Ordinary People”) and Emmy winner Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) leading the ensemble cast as the victim’s long-estranged parents.

The premise observes matters of gender, race and social standing as it weaves in additional characters, including an addicted young couple (played by Caitlin Gerard and Elvis Nolasco) and the mother (Penelope Ann Miller) of the slain man’s brutally assaulted wife. Also among the show’s stars are Regina King (“Southland”), Lili Taylor, W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood”), Benito Martinez, Johnny Ortiz and Richard Cabral.

Ridley said ABC came to him with “a desire to do a show that looked at where we are now, and who we are now, and do it through an inciting incident that people tend to galvanize around. And one of the things that I wanted to explore was the concept that it’s not about the police. It’s not about the prosecutors. But it really is about the family and what they deal with … not just for 45 minutes, but the fact (is) that these events usually take months, if not years, to deal with. And sometimes even then, there’s not a resolution.”

The maiden season of “American Crime” lasts 11 episodes, a fact that held particular appeal for Ridley: “Because it was a limited series, because we had room, it was really an opportunity to sit down with the actors and talk about these characters and build them out. So I believe (in), and I hope that I came in with, specific ideas that I was offering up to everybody.”

Returning to series work after his five seasons on TNT’s “Leverage,” Hutton clearly liked the “American Crime” approach, since he noted that “from the beginning, the conversations with John – about the characters and their place in the story and what they mean to the overall – were really great conversations in a way that I had never experienced before.

“They were very, very specific. Ideas were shared. And it was clear that this wasn’t just going to be a story about the outcome of this investigation, but that it would really focus on the details of these people, everyday people, that all intersect one another because of this tragedy. We were going to follow each of them, not just what they had to say, but what they do in a given day.”

If some elements of “American Crime” reflect recent and even current events in the U.S., such as the nature of police relations with the public, Ridley maintains that’s not intentional. Still, he doesn’t mind that they add timeliness to the show.

“The reality is that, unfortunately, these events remain cyclical in this country,” he reflected. “It was never our desire to try to exploit any of these things, but at the same time, you want to build the space where people do recognize that it is not purely empty entertainment, in the sense that we’re not trying to acknowledge things that are going on.”