Roush Review: American Crime and (In)Justice in ‘Seven Seconds’

Seven Seconds

ABC canceled American Crime after three seasons, but its anguished and tragically timely spirit lives on in Netflix’s Seven Seconds, a grueling 10-part urban crime melodrama from Veena Sud (The Killing).

Much like the acclaimed Crime, this self-contained anthology series defies usual TV convention with its sprawling and novelistic grit, its grindingly downbeat tone, and its sense of outrage and frustration when justice proves elusive for those, especially minorities, trapped in a corrupt system.

Another indelible connection to Crime is the casting of Regina King, who won two Emmys during that series’ run in very different roles. She could easily reap a third as Latrice Butler, a distraught Jersey City mom who’s desperate to get retribution for her beloved teenage son, mortally wounded when he’s struck on his bike by Pete Jabonski (a soulful Beau Knapp), a naive white cop who’s about to become a father. This terrible accident in the iconic shadow of the Statue of Liberty escalates quickly into a crime when the young detective’s shady partners, fearing a Ferguson-style backlash, convince him to drive away, while they proceed to cover things up. It’s a moronic and morally indefensible decision which, of course, only makes everything worse.

The weakest aspect of Seven Seconds’ plotting is in the villainous manipulations of this supposedly elite but seriously compromised narcotics task force, led by an unconvincingly snarling David Lyons as Mike “D” Diangelo. Like nearly everyone in this story, D has serious father issues, and his attempt to take guilt-wracked Pete under his wing creates tension within the dirty squad.

The series is on much more potent dramatic ground with Latrice and her crusade to get anyone to take her son’s death seriously and see him as anything more than a potential banger (he wasn’t). Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for viewers, her greatest obstacle may be the person assigned to investigate and prosecute the case. Clare-Hope Ashitey is a riveting marvel as a hot mess of an assistant district attorney, KJ Harper, a human train wreck who seems defeated before she even begins. Her ragged state reflected by the filthy condition of her car—you may soon wonder if Jersey City even has such a thing as a car wash—KJ is a raging alcoholic with a crippling inferiority complex about her legal abilities. She is forever in apology mode as she continually disappoints Latrice and clashes with her investigator, “Fish” Rinaldi (an appealing Michael Mosley), a gum-cracking detective with a thing for strays, human or especially canine.

Seven Seconds

Clare-Hope Ashitey in ‘Seven Seconds’

If KJ weren’t enough of a liability, their key witness is a runaway teen junkie (Nadia Alexander) who’s unstable, unreliable—and in danger, once the Bad News Cops learn about her.

The legal and political firestorm that ensues, as the story takes perhaps a few too many incredible twists, is relentlessly grim in a very long—this is Netflix, after all—and uneasy road to a surprising verdict. But even at its messiest, Seven Seconds is undeniably gripping, and the cast is terrific, including Russell Hornsby as Latrice’s shattered husband, grieving for the son he never really knew, and late in the proceedings, Gretchen Mol as a cunning shark of a lawyer for the police.

“You want absolution? Find a priest,” Mol snaps at her miserable clients, under no illusion that redemption is even possible here. Nor should you be if you decide to enter this bleak world where each second brings you closer to despair.

Seven Seconds, Series Premiere, Friday, Feb. 23, Netflix