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A little TV spring cleaning and the rubbish must go

Jeff Simon

It stuns me every time.

ABC's "American Crime" – not to be confused with the FX network's "American Crime Story" – is now in its third season. You might think my amazement would have abated by now.

Not even close. I'm more amazed by the new season that began last Sunday than I've ever been. The fact that it's happening on Sunday, the most watched night of the week, makes it all the more mind-bending.

When its cast members go on talk shows to try to explain the show to an audience, they mumble something about "human trafficking" as bravely as they can to explain its subject matter and then try to change the subject as soon as possible to cute things the kids have done recently.

When I finally got around to "American Crime" on my DVR, I was dumbfounded. Here was an hour a week nakedly devoted to the ugliest kinds of capitalist exploitation. We watched a homeless teenage male prostitute, a teen female prostitute who never knows what awaits her behind sleazy motel room doors, an illegal Mexican immigrant who can't speak English and who wants work as a picker in North Carolina and a poor kid lured by drugs into picking tomatoes by an evil-looking actor (who, in real life, is a Hollywood producer too.)

If the McCarthyite witch hunters in the '50s had gotten a look at that first episode of "American Crime," they would have been chasing down everyone involved with the show with tomahawks, subpoenas and an army of angry young political paranoids who either may or may not be certifiable.

But back then, suspicions of traitorous connivance were directed at urban leftists. In the 21st century, people with scary Russian ties come from an entirely different political direction. Which is why "American Crime" slipping virtually unnoticed into prime time is truly remarkable.

If the political slant of this new season in an era of presidential travel bans weren't enough to stagger audiences a little, the show's unabashedly aesthetic slant is almost hallucinatory.

John Ridley is the creator, director and producer of "American Crime." (Getty Images)

A platoon of writers and directors work under the show's creator/director/producer and showrunner John Ridley (who won an Oscar for his script for "12 Years a Slave.")

But you'll see only two cinematographers – German cinematographer Ramsey Nickell and mainstream American D.P. (film set slang for director of photography) Lisa Weigand ("Chicago Justice," "Necessary Roughness.")

The aesthetic stylization of "American Crime" is unique. Each shot seems painstakingly framed and composed – closeups almost always the same number of inches from the actor's faces which alternate between the right and the left side of the frame. The visual austerity makes for a kind of hyper realism during the dialogue, as if everything were being approved by such modern masters of American still photography as Walker Evans and Robert Frank.

And yet somehow Ridley, despite the politics of it, has been able to remove himself from the kind of slavering, uncontrollable omni-scrutiny that the Internet comes up with at its most irrational.

To use a much-used word these days but in a slightly different context, it's almost as if "American Crime" has normalized both its manner and its matter despite the fact that if you think about it at all, it's not the slightest bit "normal" at all for Sunday night ABC television. It's exceptional.

What the show HAS been able to get attention for is its casting method--different stories each season told by the same stars taking different roles every season. This time around, Felicity Huffman has married into a family of wealthy landowners negotiating the best price for their picked tomatoes; Regina King is a social worker for teen prostitutes who interrupts negotiations to complain about her cable bill; Benito Martinez is a migrant picker who can't speak English and Richard Cabral is a recruiter for new pickers who are never plentiful enough, given how viciously they're exploited.

And it's on weekly prime time TV in Trump's America. Consider that. For the moment, let's leave all commentary at "Wow."

Time for Spring Cleaning on the tube – a bunch of TV shows I've been meaning to write about:

TIME AFTER TIME: The ABC lead-in that premiered just before "American Crime" returned was, undoubtedly, thought to be "creative" somewhere at the network but it is a wee bit ridiculous. The idea here is that H.G. Wells wasn't just one of the great writers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras -- the one who wrote an "Outline of History" living with "The Invisible Man" and "The Time Machine" and "War of the Worlds" – but also a kind of engineering prodigy who actually built a time machine, thereby enabling himself and Jack the Ripper to chase each other around the 21st century.

I refuse to be too strict about modern idiocies transforming Victorian fantasies -- I'm all for everything for "Elementary" wants to do with Sherlock Holmes, as a recovering addict in modern New York City -- but there are certain kinds of foolishness that a real writer ought not have to suffer inside a TV fiction, even if rooted in Victorian fantasy.

RIVERDALE: Archie Andrews, Betty Anderson, Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones were never real people. But in the comic books of my youth, they starred in a kind of antiseptic pre-teen inanity about teenager years that described a kind of training fantasies in comic book fantasy.

In the new TV show, they've all been afflicted with identifiable teen miseries and murder mysteries no less. This is a little like being told that The Flying Nun needs an engine adjustment to fly better or that Donald Duck has just had a laryngeal operation to have the hoarseness of his quack removed.

CW's "Riverdale" does not get the best description.

TAKEN: It's bad enough that Liam Neeson's "Oh no, they've kidnapped my daughter" movie has now, somewhat incredibly, turned into a series. What happened to the formidably brutal hero on TV is that he's had to watch his beautiful younger sister murdered aboard a train in front of him.

So he's now part of a group of governmental crime stoppers in a battle against kidnapping for the sake of truth, justice and the American way. Much shooting and fighting ensue. At least you don't have to worry about Jughead packing heat. (It's going to happen any minute now on "Riverdale.")

TRIAL AND ERROR: Not quite as funny as "Arrested Development," perhaps, but if you're the sort of TV watcher who tolerates new sitcoms, you could do infinitely worse. John Lithgow plays a bisexual poetry professor who goes on trial in his small town for killing his wife by throwing her through a plate glass window. It turns out his first wife died the same way.

The black comedy in this is that it's all seen from the point of view of his inexperienced young lawyer, who gets into town and discovers that the secretary in the office he'll be working in suffers from Facial Non-Recognition Syndrome as well as wildly inappropriate laughter at the wrong times. It's pretty funny if you're generous.

"Trial & Error" is actually pretty funny, Simon says.

DOUBT: Katherine Heigl, whose worst reviews in her life have seemed to come from her TV co-workers, now plays a lawyer falling in love with a client. She got exactly two episodes to function before CBS packed the show off and sent it to the showers. I was almost ready to put up with a series that promised regular appearances by Dule Hill and Elliott Gould after the next commercial.

But, on the other hand, the addition of transgender actress Laverne Cox to Heigl's law office, no doubt caused CBS honchos to wonder if the show weren't being just a little bit too transgressive for a series getting such rotten ratings. I'm all for diversity. But I can understand why CBS wondered at just what point extreme diversity gives a weekly series crippling credibility issues.

APB: Credibility issues don't come up here because the whole thing announces itself, from the outset, as semi-lunatic sci-fi about a near-distant future. Heaven help me I'm enjoying it. It's about what happens when a genius billionaire engineer is so horrified by the death of a business partner that he buys himself a Chicago police district and supplies his real cops with the latest of crime-fighting gadgetry -- drones, bullet proof uniforms, camera everywhere and cars that go from zero to 60 in the time it takes to blink.

What makes it work is that he's more than a little obnoxious, whereas his chief ally in the precinct is a beautiful and world-weary and very street-wily cop. The show has no credibility whatsoever, which is why it's more fun to watch than most of the new sitcoms.


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