Michael McDonald Q&A: ‘American Crime’ producer
It’s “a show really about the people, and the impact of one of these crimes. Not the crime itself, not about the evidence, but about how it affects the families,” says producer Michael McDonald of the recently concluded "American Crime." In our recent webcam chat, he recalls the challenges of bringing the vision of Oscar-winning writer John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave") to life. The critically acclaimed limited series was recently renewed by ABC for a second go-round next season, with the cast playing new roles in a completely different story.
The first installment explored the impact of a violent crime on the victims and their families, and turned the spotlight on people from different walks of life, coming together in their grief with their own unique racial, religious and socio-economic perspectives. “What I love about the show, and I’ll be very honest and specific about myself is that there are so many different stories and specific things going on, there are things that touch each person, individually, in very strong and powerful ways," admits McDonald as he reflects on the powerful moments that got to him. He says these deeply affected him as they echoed painful events that affected his own family.
For the producer, the one scene that perfectly encapsulated what the show was trying to achieve was the tearful embrace between two polar opposites (played by Regina King and Jennifer Savidge). “That is what this show is about. These two different people, these two different worlds that are touched by a moment, which is death and crime, and it happens and we all feel exactly the same when we lose a loved one." He explains, "Here’s a black Muslim woman and a white privileged woman and they feel that exact same pain at that exact moment in time, and they just melt into each others’ arms. … This sums up the whole show. This happens all over America every day.”
The producers discussed the challenges of a bringing a show like “American Crime” to broadcast television. “There were significant roadblocks that were institutional. But luckily we had Paul Lee, the head of the network, who was so supportive of what we wanted to do, and he was able to clear away a lot of those roadblocks, or help us navigate them. … Deliver what you want to do, and let us see what we can get on the air.”
He says it certainly helped that his background was as a senior executive in drama development at ABC for many years. “I knew what doors to open up, I knew who controlled what buttons … I’d been there for more than a decade, I had run development at the studio, so I knew who to go to and knew a little about the navigation and the politics and how to approach things, because I had been on the other end of it for many years. … I also had John Ridley, who at the time was in the throes of winning an Academy Award and had become not only the person that I believed was a great talent, but the world recognised it; so when you have him by your side, [although] I know what doors to open, he was there to really open the door.”
Taking a short break from the writers room where he was listening to pitches for the next installment, McDonald teased what we can expect. “The second season will be a different crime, in a different city” he confirms. “As this season was focused much on race and the judicial system, we’re going to be focused a little more on class and the educational system. It’s going to take place in a younger environment, in a high school … whereas in season one it was about people coming in to a community; all these families came together, they were disparate … what we’re going to do this year is about a closed community; how a crime affects people that already know each other.”