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ABC Experiments With the Network Miniseries

Where ‘When We Rise’ is old-fashioned, ‘American Crime’ is strikingly modern

(ABC/Ringer illustration)
(ABC/Ringer illustration)

Miniseries are microcosms, compressing the otherwise multiyear process of telling a story on television into weeks or even days. So it follows that the qualities that have come to define our TV over the last 20 years are intensified in our miniseries: increased cachet of talent on both sides of the camera as Academy Award nominees are drawn to television’s loose strings and deep pockets; grisly, operatic plot twists encouraged by no longer needing to sustain a story for multiple seasons; the reboots on reboots that constitute the chief symptom of IP Fever.

The rise of Ryan Murphy–style seasonal anthologies and Big Little Lies–level blockbusters suggests a simple evolution of the miniseries: They used to be one thing (lesson-laden true stories that privileged sentiment over art), and now they’re another entirely (platinum-plated star vehicles engineered to dominate the attention economy). But with two limited-run shows airing almost back to back, ABC is now playing host to the miniseries at both its most traditional and its most contemporary. The result is an example of modern television at its most inclusive, accommodating both old-school nostalgia projects and attempts by broadcast networks to forge ahead with the times.

When We Rise is a prime example of the former. In four movie-length installments shown over a five-day period, the series follows the trajectory of LGBT rights in America from 1969 to the present day. With its infotainment ethos, When We Rise is a time capsule of The Way Miniseries Used to Be, making the show educational in more ways than one. (After all, the multigenerational struggles of a persecuted minority in America double as a synopsis of Roots, the most iconic and successful miniseries of all time.)

Created by Milk and J. Edgar’s Dustin Lance Black, executive produced and partially directed by Gus van Sant, and boasting the likes of Guy Pearce and Phylicia Rashad as part of its sprawling ensemble cast, When We Rise has at least something in common with the miniseries’ prestige wave. In its subject matter and approach, however, When We Rise is pure throwback to the old-fashioned event series. The action essentially renders it a triple biopic, following three real-life activists — Cleve Jones, Ken Jones, and Roma Guy — strategically selected to give as broad and intersectional a view of the movement as possible. Cramming issues as numerous and complicated as the AIDS epidemic, queer women’s contentious place in mainstream feminism, and the intersection between sexuality and race into such a short span does not prove conducive to nuanced drama. But storytelling here isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means to render the history it dramatizes as palatable to an imagined “mainstream” audience as possible.

The specific choice to dramatize the struggle for LGBT rights is certainly of the 21st century. Support for marriage equality outpaced opposition only as recently as 2011. Two years after the doctrine became the law of the land, 2017 might well be the first year the LGBT movement is considered uncontroversial enough for prime-time inspiration. But the novelty of When We Rise is mild compared with its conservatism. Airbrushed of details, When We Rise seems teleported from a time when cheesiness was more fashionable and bad wigs more forgivable. The show begins with a protégé gazing up adoringly at his mentor and asking him when he knew it was time to rise up. (Ten Years After croons “I’d Love to Change the World” in the background, for maximum subtlety.) It ends with the human spirit triumphing in five days or less, with a postscript to remind us there’s work to be done yet. It’s an arc we’ve seen play out before, and that When We Rise doesn’t make a strong enough case for watching again.

When We Rise represents one strategy for major networks dealing with unprecedented competition: aiming for 1970s-style market share with 1970s-style programming. (In this case, the tactic didn’t pan out; When We Rise’s finale was watched by just 2 million people.) American Crime represents that strategy’s opposite. The acclaimed anthology from 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley launched its third season this Sunday, continuing an impressive streak of adapting what was previously assumed to be a cable phenomenon without sacrificing quality.

Like True Detective, American Crime fixates on a different case every season, each highlighting a cross-section of conflicts that lay bare The Current State of This Country: Season 1 tracked the fallout of a veteran’s murder, Season 2 followed sexual assault and gun violence at a high school, and Season 3 delves into labor exploitation in rural North Carolina. And like American Horror Story (or American Crime Story, the show American Crime predates yet is constantly confused for), Ridley enlists the same gang of actors to help him do it, providing some stability despite their ever-shifting roles. Felicity Huffman and Regina King (who’s won two Emmys for her work on the show) are the mainstays; this year, Cherry Jones and Sandra Oh join.

American Crime’s studied topicality gives it some superficial similarities to When We Rise. Season 3’s themes include undocumented immigration, opioid addiction in the white working class, and abortion, all of which make the story sound more didactic and responsive than it is or is meant to be. “It’s not about tweaking or changing or trying to be oh-so-current that we miss the bigger picture or the longer game,” Ridley told the Television Critics Association last summer. “Immigration, that issue is not new, [and] it’s not relegated to the United States of America.”

But American Crime is a student of the miniseries’ new school in more than just its structure or casting. The show is visually meticulous, letting as much of its story unfold in wordless close-ups as exposition-laden monologues; Teenage Apocalypse auteur Gregg Araki directed a second season episode, and Sunday’s premiere was helmed by So Yong Kim, an independent filmmaker brought into television by Ava DuVernay as part of Queen Sugar’s all-female directors’ roster. The action is grim, showing more violence and even profanity than we’re used to on broadcast; Episode 3 ends on a sickeningly aestheticized wide shot of a vicious beating, and actors swear — the screen just goes black and silent for a moment when they do. (Hear no evil, see no evil.) Meanwhile, the narrative is serialized and compressed into fewer than a dozen episodes, with a corresponding intensity that’s only magnified as the episode order’s diminished from 11 to 10 to, now, eight. Thanks to the show’s marginal ratings, which hovered last year below 4 million viewers, the shorter seasons are likely more a commercial decision than a creative one. Still, the effect is to heighten the one-story-in-multiple-parts vibe of a cable or streaming series.

With the exception of Murphy’s Scream Queens on Fox, American Crime is still the only seasonal anthology on a Big Four network, and the only one to date to import the directorial vision and astute social drama that distinguish its cable counterparts. It’s a more forward-facing effort than When We Rise, destroying assumptions in the vein of the best contemporary television, a medium still coming to grips with its own possibilities. If the CW can bring in Golden Globes on the regular and creators can build great dramas in 30 minutes or less, why can’t ABC get in on this game, too? Starz has its anthology series about the nature of sex work. With a plotline about child trafficking on its own series, this Disney affiliate also takes on the realities of an industry whose workers are more often bit players than protagonists, albeit a very different side of them.

No one was questioning ABC’s ability to put together a maudlin docudrama like When We Rise — merely the timing of doing so in this day and age. American Crime, meanwhile, pushes the boundaries of what’s possible on a network in the same way that other contemporary miniseries led the charge on cable. Neither When We Rise nor American Crime has cracked the code of how to bring mass viewership back to broadcast. But where When We Rise reads like an attempt to turn back the clock through wishful thinking, American Crime experiments with ways to bring network TV into broadcast television’s future. The latter path seems more worth pursuing. When We Rise was a harmless yet ineffective look back. American Crime feels like a way forward.