TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This week, ABC presents "American Crime," a new drama series from John Ridley who wrote the screenplay for the movie "12 Years A Slave." Also this week, Netflix presents the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," a new comedy series from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock who collaborated on NBC's "30 Rock." According to our TV critic David Bianculli, they're both part of the new TV revolution, and they're both good.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: You can thank the heated competition between broadcast networks and TVs alternative delivery systems - cable, streaming sites, whatever - for the existence and the quality of two of this week's new TV shows. Netflix wants to keep grabbing headlines, so it asks Tina Fey, creator of "30 Rock" what she'd like to do next. ABC, meanwhile, wants to compete with the complexity of cable and streaming shows, widen its audience base and its on-air minority representation and also gain a little prestige, so it goes to John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "12 Years A Slave," and asks him what he'd like to do next. So presto - this week, viewers can enjoy a new, quirky comedy in the "30 Rock" mold and an emotionally raw and captivating new drama that breaks the mold.
Let's start with the comedy. The "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," which releases all of its first season Friday on Netflix comes from Tina Fey and her "30 Rock" cohort, Robert Carlock. It's a comedy about a wide-eyed young woman, one of several held underground for more than a decade by a crazy cult leader. She emerges from her underground bunker and decides to make it on her own in New York City. Ellie Kemper, who played Erin on NBC's "The Office," has the title role, and her costars include Carol Kane from "Taxi" and Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess from "30 Rock."
At first, things go charmingly for the perennially perky Kimmy in this strange new world, until they don't. In this scene, she returns to her new roommate, played by Burgess, and is anything but perky. But, like this new series, she is funny.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")
ELLIE KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) They stole my backpack.
TITUSS BURGESS: (As Titus)What?
KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I can't do this. Reverend Richard was right.
BURGESS: (As Titus)Wait, who?
KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, senior prophet and CFO of Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-Pocalypse.
BURGESS: (As Titus) Who?
KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) I am one of the Indiana mole women.
BURGESS: (As Titus) From the news? Why didn't you tell me?
KEMPER: (As Kimmy Schmidt) Because I just want to be a normal person, and I can't. I don't know anything. I can't tell phones from cameras. Even policemen have tattoos.
BIANCULLI: Thursday night on ABC, the new drama, "American Crime" premieres with a concept that paradoxically is simple and complex at the same time. It looks at one crime, the murder of a married man and the near murder of his wife, and follows and dramatizes all the connecting threads of that single case. We meet the grieving parents, the accused killer and many others tangled somehow into this story's cleverly constructed web. Along the way, we visit and examine several different class structures, ethnicities and problems. And the longer we watch, the more we're surprised. In TV terms, "American Crime" is closest to HBO's "The Wire" or the original miniseries version of "Traffic." But it's got a tone and structure all its own.
The acting in "American Crime" is as good as the writing. And I expect this series to muscle into several Emmy categories next year. Benito Martinez from Netflix's "House Of Cards" is commandingly sympathetic as the proud father of a baby-faced teen who may be less innocent than he appears. Caitlin Gerard and Carter Nix are street-level meth addicts who seem sweeter than their harsh environment, until they don't.
And at the core of the series, are the long-divorced parents of the murder victim who reconnect only after the husband identifies his child in the morgue. The parents are played by Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman. And as they reunite to discuss their dead son's case and what to do about their surviving son, the tensions are painfully palpable.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME")
TIMOTHY HUTTON: (As Russ) I couldn't hardly recognize him. The detectives said that the gun must have been right in front of his face...
FELICITY HUFFMAN: (As Barb) What are the police doing?
HUTTON: (As Russ) Well, they have a description of a car.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) When was Mike killed, Sunday? It's Tuesday. That - all they have is a description of a car?
HUTTON: (As Russ) And now they said that they think it might be an Hispanic kid.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Some illegal?
HUTTON: (As Russ) Just Hispanic.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Why did they call you?
HUTTON: (As Russ) And they said that they think that maybe Gwen was raped.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I don't understand why they called you.
HUTTON: (As Russ) I'm his father.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) No, I don't understand why they called you first.
HUTTON: (As Russ) You know, they just - they found my number and they called me.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) What about Mark?
HUTTON: (As Russ) Yeah, I wanted to, you know, talk to you first.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) Oh, you haven't called Mark yet? Oh, my god, Russ.
HUTTON: (As Russ) No. I thought we should call him together.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I'll call him.
HUTTON: (As Russ) He's my son, too.
HUFFMAN: (As Barb) I'll call him.
HUTTON: (As Russ) We need to be a family now. For both our boys right now, we need to be a family.
BIANCULLI: Hutton does his best work in years here, and Huffman is magnificent. Hers is a fearless, flawless performance. And because of the way their scenes are written and photographed as well as performed, "American Crime" is an important, compelling new series. It's bound to spark a lot of discussion, and it deserves to.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.