Ancient Greeks, university professors, and stoners have spent eons poring over some of life's most perplexing ethical questions, exploring gray areas in an attempt to separate them into black or white. Ask a college freshman in Philosophy 101 "Is it a crime to steal bread if it's the only way to feed your family?" and he'll mull it over until he graduates. The new Fox show Accused, an anthology made of different stories told from the perspective of characters on trial for crimes that fall into morally murky areas, wants to provoke thought and post-dinner family discussions with such questions, but it wants to do it in 44 minutes.
Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24) has created a series for broadcast that's better than most of its peers and asks the right things, but it doesn't have the time to give them the necessary amount of depth. Each episode begins with its rotating guest star of the week about to go on trial for their crime, before flashing back to give backstory about how they got there. And the road to revealing what happened — including telling us what the actual crime is — is full of winding, blind turns that lead the viewer to the question, "What would YOU have done in the same situation?"
The first episode, for example, follows a father (Michael Chiklis) who suspects violent tendencies in his teenage son and ponders doing the unthinkable before an understanding gesture backfires and he finds himself on trial for murder. Is he guilty of being a bad citizen or a caring father? It's a real pickle of a conundrum! It's impossible to go into more detail without spoiling the series — which Fox was adamant that we not do when reviewing the show — and finding out what happened is most of the fun. Other episodes involve hate crimes, false testimony, drug addiction, and surrogacy, suggesting that Accused has no shortage of tough topics (or diverse communities, nice!) to mine for questions of scruples.
But with all the mystery unpacking and story setup, Accused doesn't have enough time to really dig into these moral puzzles and present the details needed to lead the discussion, nor does it seem to want to. Most of the episodes feel like ordering a premium cable miniseries over Grubhub; all the ingredients are there, but important facts and character backstory are glossed over in order to just get on with it and squeeze everything in. The show is a good idea that's unfortunately bigger than its chosen format. Squint hard and you'll think you're watching an FX series on fast forward. ABC's American Crime was the last successful attempt to elevate the broadcast anthology, but it spread its stories over an entire season, shading those stories with enough complexity to make it one of the best network shows of the 2010s (and to get it canceled, because broadcast television is no place for such things).
However, between its layered reveals, strong performances from its rotating cast — which includes Malcolm-Jamal Warner as a father wrapped up in revenge, Stephanie Nogueras as a Deaf surrogate looking out for someone who can't look out for themselves, J. Harrison Ghee as a drag queen caught in a man's lie, and Keith Carradine as a famous musician making a tough decision for his family — and talent and compassion behind the camera from Marlee Matlin and Billy Porter, Accused is extremely watchable despite its surface-level hurriedness, bridging the gap between broadcast accessibility and cable quality. It's broadcast television for those looking for something deeper than broadcast television, and cable television for those who don't have the attention span.
Premieres: Sunday, Jan. 22 after the NFL on Fox
Who's in it: Michael Chiklis, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Stephanie Nogueras, J. Harrison Ghee, Keith Carradine
Who's behind it: Howard Gordon (creator), Billy Porter (director), Marlee Matlin (director)
For fans of: Reading headlines, Law & Order, Ethics 101
How many episodes we watched: 5