NEW YORK — No one should come to “American Crime” expecting easy answers to the tough questions it poses.
Viewers learned that during season one of the celebrated ABC drama, when murder and drugs in a California town sparked a troubling look at race, class and a broken legal system.
Viewers will learn it anew as “American Crime” airs the second hour of this season’s saga Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST. Lurid photos of an Indianapolis teenager have gone viral after a school party where he claims to have been sexually assaulted. But he will not be the only victim in a clash between students, parents and educators at two very different high schools.
Returning from last season are Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Lily Taylor and Regina King (who won an Emmy the first go-around), although in brand-new roles.
Also back onboard: creator and executive producer John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave” whose focus for “American Crime” remains that of examining broad, messy, pressing issues at a painfully personal level.
“The point is not solving them but watching people endure them,” he says. “There are resolutions, but in terms of solving anything, like many times in life, we’re never gonna know exactly what took place. The actors would ask me, ‘Will I find out at the end if I did this?’ or ‘Did a certain thing happen or not?’ I would tell each of them, ‘Your truth is your truth.’”
It’s not the typical drama series, certainly not on a broadcast network where right-and-wrong is usually spelled out for the audience and ethical debates are usually clear-cut. “American Crime” calls for viewers to unlearn well-entrenched expectations bred by decades of TV custom. It’s challenging and rewarding. And unlikely.
So how did this show ever get on the air?
Sure, ABC had invited Ridley to cook up a new drama. But despite what he says was continuing encouragement, the network simply had to be surprised at the result.
“I don’t think any of us, including the cast, thought the series would get picked up (for series),” Ridley admits with a laugh, then adds, “There was a freedom of doing what we wanted to do in the pilot, because we thought no one was ever going to see it.”
But then, in a sense, ABC called his bluff, not only ordering the series, but also bringing it back for a second year.
It’s just the latest milestone for Ridley, an African-American born in Milwaukee 50 years ago who describes his distinguished and diverse career as a “journey of opportunities.”
A quarter-century ago he landed a writing job on comedian Martin Lawrence’s sitcom, “Martin,” then moved to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which starred a TV newcomer named Will Smith. From there he went to the ambitiously bittersweet “The John Larroquette Show,” then to the mainstream cop drama “Third Watch.”
He published a half-dozen novels and wrote and directed “Jimi: All is by My Side,” a 2014 feature about Jimi Hendrix. Before “12 Years a Slave” was released to critical and audience acclaim, ABC signed him to develop “American Crime.” ABC has now extended its deal with Ridley, including a pilot for a new series, “Presence.”
“The last couple of years I’ve been really, really blessed,” he says over tea while in New York for a “Presence” casting session.
This prospective new drama — about a female Army veteran who becomes an unlicensed private eye in Los Angeles — has a lighter tone than “American Crime” (it would have to!), says Ridley, perhaps befitting his origin as a comedy writer and, as his show-biz entry point, a stand-up comic whose peak 20 years ago was appearing on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
One joke he planned to deliver that night targeted the U.S. war policy with a certain bite. Maybe TOO much bite, he worried beforehand.
“I don’t know if I should do it,” he recalls telling a comedian friend. “But she said to me, ‘You have to. If you don’t, no one will. Don’t worry whether people will laugh or not. You’ve got a responsibility to say something because you have the opportunity.’”
Her words have stuck with him ever since.
“I do believe that lesson has followed me to ‘American Crime,’” Ridley says. “I’m not gonna give you the show you think you want, but the show that you need. I appreciate that I’ve had the opportunity to put that philosophy in action. And it’s turned out OK.”
As for the joke on that Letterman appearance? “It got a laugh,” Ridley says.