Television used to come in one type of package: episodic. Cops arrived at a murder scene, interviewed eccentric cameo players, bantered with regulars, and somehow figured that the highest-paid guest star did it. But if the lead actors were likable you half-watched the shows anyway, because in the pre-cable, pre-internet era, TV was more appliance than medium. One-offs occasionally found ways to spice up this bland recipe. The best was Columbo, which started by showing who did it and how, then fixated on duets between the rumpled prole hero and the guest murderers foolish enough to believe they could outsmart him. Every now and then you’d see a structural variation on the formula: a multipart adaptation of Fatal Vision, say, or Twin Peaks, or the barely remembered but influential Murder One (1995–97), which spent whole seasons on a single case. Those latter variations have belatedly become the model for the latest, hottest version of the TV procedural. Call it Slow Crime.
Slow Crime starts with a seemingly isolated act of savagery and then widens its scope. The number of twists varies, and there’s a good chance they’ll be as contrived as anything in an episodic series, but in due time the writers always reveal that the show is about something other than the nitty-gritty of crime and punishment. The Slow Crime template might be applied to a Twin Peaks–style, seamy-underbelly-of-a-community potboiler (The Killing; Broadchurch and its American remake, Gracepoint). It could be used to explore racial, ethnic, or class tensions (The Red Road; The Bridge), or to set up a mournful feminist psychodrama (Top of the Lake, The Fall), a deranged hothouse of deception and victimization (How to Get Away With Murder), or a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the fungibility of “proof” (see, or rather listen to, the podcast “Serial,” whose big-shrug conclusion inspired Twin Peaks–level groans). True Detective started out as a typical buddy-cops-catch-serial-killer show, then turned into a pulp-noir whirlpool of machismo and Manichaean imagery, with a finale that saw its philosopher-cop hero transformed into a risen hippie Christ. There are still more episodic crime shows than serialized ones, and they’re tonally diverse: the warhorses Bones and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are nothing like CBS’s very entertaining Sherlock Holmes gloss Elementary, which is nothing like Fox’s aggressively snotty Backstrom, which is only somewhat like the Northern Exposure–inspired Battle Creek. But the serials get most of the attention, because they’re where most of the art (or “Art”) is happening.
HBO dropped a real case into the Slow Crime template with The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. The documentary series marries Errol Morris–style reconstructions with interviews with Durst, a New York real-estate magnate and accused multiple murderer so smugly entitled that he would have made a great Columbo villain. The Jinx makes an art of frustrating the viewer while chewing on evidence like cud; in that sense, it’s like ”Serial,” and like its director Andrew Jarecki’s best-known work, Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about accused child molesters that tactically withheld known facts to create surprises. You’re supposed to watch programs like The Jinx and shake your head at the mysteries of the human personality and the elusiveness of truth. Unfortunately, it seems mainly interested in watching Durst lord it over Jarecki, the police, the families of his alleged victims, and all those miserable peasants who can’t get a table at Per Se. It could have been titled Interview With the Asshole.
The worst-case Slow Crime scenario is a shallow, scripted program that embraces art-house-cinema affectations while cynically padding an investigation that SVU would’ve sewn up in an hour. The Killing, a remake of a Danish series that limped through three seasons on AMC but finished on Netflix, was the most notorious recent example. By midway through season two it made Twin Peaks’ puckishly lackadaisical approach to crime solving seem as breezy as that of Scooby-Doo. ABC’s limited-run Secrets and Lies, starring Ryan Phillippe as a chilly suburban dad suspected of murdering a boy and Juliette Lewis as the investigator, gives The Killing a run for its money in the much-ado-about-nearly-nothing department. Exposition-choked and blandly acted, this suburban nightmare plays like an edited-for-TV Gone Girl, but with no sense of style, and sprinkles red herrings like anchovies on a pizza that you don’t remember ordering. Did he or didn’t he? Who cares?
ABC’s new drama American Crime, about a rape-murder’s effect on a community, is much better, though not without its missteps and affectations. It’s created and co-executive-produced by John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave, and though its production predates “Serial,” its marketing campaign seems to be riding the latter’s coattails. And like “Serial” — and, for that matter, The Bridge, The Red Road, and Top of the Lake — it’s up-front about treating a felony investigation as a window into the delusions, prejudices, and buried secrets of a community: in this case, Modesto, California, population 204,000.
The pilot starts with news of a home invasion that has left a husband dead and his wife in a coma. We know from other procedurals that the case won’t be as cut-and-dried as the police hope; still, Ridley’s series fascinates by tying every reversal to the received wisdom about race, ethnicity, and class. The victims were white folks from upper-middle-class families. The list of suspects includes a couple of meth addicts, the African-American Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco) and his white girlfriend, Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard); a Mexican-American teen named Tony Gutiérrez (Johnny Ortiz), whose father Alonzo (Benito Martinez) has a streak of ethnic self-loathing; and a reckless, arrogant immigrant named Hector Tontz (Richard Cabral), who gets arrested quickly and digs himself into a bottomless hole.
Any of these characters is strong enough to star in his or her own movie, including the family of the victims. The young man’s parents are Russ Skokie (Timothy Hutton) and his ex-wife, Barb Hanlon (Felicity Huffman); their marriage collapsed thanks to Russ’s gambling, and Russ feels so bad about it that he lets Barb, a polite but insistent and often insensitive woman, run roughshod over him. Things only get more heated when Barb enlists a victims’-rights advocate (Lili Taylor) to goose the plodding cops by reframing the atrocity as a hate crime against whites. Meanwhile, the parents of the comatose woman, Tom and Eve Carlin (W. Earl Brown and Penelope Ann Miller), squabble with Barb and Russ over how to deal with the cops, the courts, and the media. American Crime provocatively stirs religion into the mix by presenting the Carlins as quietly devout and the other couple as warily secular. But here, too, the show throws us a rhetorical curveball by suggesting that our attitudes toward drugs and law and order are another kind of religion. The opening of the third episode starts with the Carlins in church; the congregation’s hymns become the soundtrack for footage of a murder suspect in an orange jumpsuit being indicted.
The show owes more to a Robert Altman portrait-of-a-community film than to any other current crime drama. The cops and cameo players are not important, except as vehicles for delivering new information; Ridley and his collaborators drive this notion home by letting scenes play out in very long close-ups of the lead actors, with their conversation-mates shunted offscreen. It’s a contrived and off-putting style, but it does get across the idea that the main characters think this tragedy is happening only to them. In time they’ll realize how wrong they are, and when they do, it’ll hurt.
*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.