Se­cond sea­son

‘Not the show you think you want, but the show you need’: John Ri­d­ley


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. Be- fore “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.


John Ri­d­ley par­tic­i­pates in the “Amer­i­can Crime” panel at the ABC 2016 Win­ter TCA in Pasadena, Calif. Ri­d­ley, the show’s cre­ator and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, won an Os­car for “12 Years a Slave.”


In this im­age re­leased by ABC, Regina King, left, and An­dre Ben­jamin ap­pear in a scene from “Amer­i­can Crime,” air­ing Wed­nes­days at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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