AMERICAN CRIME: History Matters: 5 Characters That Don’t Quite Work

We are on episode 7 of American Crime, with only 4 episodes left, and we have no clue what the truth is. With so many stories unfolding at the same time, it’s impossible to go into much depth as far as the characters go. As a viewer, this leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions. Is this an intentional device on the part of American Crime’s creators? Or is it a limitation in the writer’s capacity to live inside these complicated characters’ minds?

T.C. Boyle, who is known for writing character driven fiction, speaks of the role of the writer in a recent LA Times Festival of Books interview on his new novel, The Harder They Come. He believes the writer must listen to his characters and their intentions: “This is the beauty of fiction. We may not like these characters, but we inhabit them.”

Inhabiting a character is the only way to know them. History matters – if writers are to fully inhabit their characters and get them on the page or on the screen so that their audience can, at least, find some truth. If a writer doesn’t know where the characters have been and what historical forces are still acting upon them, their stories will either be one-dimensional, fall flat, or go nowhere.

I’m a psychologist whose work is to understand deeply what makes someone the way they are. Here are the problems I’m having with 5 of the main American Crime characters:

Hector:  Who is this guy? We know he has something to do with the crime.  We know he’s pretty shady, conniving, and out to protect his own skin. He killed someone in Mexico to protect someone else and “he’s not doing that again.” But, where does he fit in the picture? At this point, it would help to have a few of the loose ends start to come together. In Episode 7, all we know is that he’s managed to cut a deal.

Carter:  Hector’s deal has put Carter deeper and deeper into trouble. Did he murder Matt and shoot Gwen? He confesses to everything to Aliyah – but he’s cracking, and this confession seems to be a function of his severe distress and self-hatred. We’re left completely guessing. This is reasonable suspense for the crime itself. But not so OK when it comes to having no clue to what’s led him and his sister Aliyah to such estrangement. Or about what caused his apparent suicide attempt. What is Carter’s despair and loneliness – and what does it have to do with how he hangs on so tightly to Aubry?  How exactly has she saved him and from what?

Aubry:  The forces in Aubry and her family are even more mysterious.  Is this her actual mother?  Why are they so alienated?  What is she running from? In Episode 6, I wondered if her brother had molested her.  She gave him a certain look when she said: “What good would confessing do?” In Episode 7, she meets with her attorney and her family and “reveals” sexual games and torment. Then we’re led to believe she made it up to save Carter and look incompetent to testify. Sexual abuse would certainly explain what’s led to Aubry’s troubles. But, what is the reality? There’s more confusion than suspense.

Barb:  She continues to prove what a racist she is; how unable to accept any differences; how defensive, self-pre-occupied, and easily persecuted. Always feeling marginalized and misunderstood: “White is a color too.” Yet, why?  We don’t know any more than we did in the beginning.

Russ: He’s a sad character who remains too statically pathetic. Now he’s fired because of a 20 year old felony conviction. He’s constantly down on his luck. And, as hard as he tries to repair things with Mark or help others, he ends up alone with no one caring enough to reach out to him, even when he asks. There’s just too little back-story to understand him at all.

American Crime leaves too many questions and too few answers about what makes these characters tick. The bottom line is: as engrossing as this series may be, there are too many main characters, each interesting in their own right and each begging to be understood. When an 11-week series bites off more than it can chew – the characters can’t be inhabited, their histories aren’t developed, and their stories are, sadly, lost.

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