TORONTO — The actor Michael Chiklis was waxing philosophical on a rainy day last April in North York, a bland but moneyed inner suburb being filmed to pass for an equally bland American counterpart. He was here on location for Fox’s new anthology series “Accused,” debuting on Sunday, each episode of which dramatizes a hot-button issue from the perspective of an ordinary person on trial.
The past few years, as it happens, had provided plenty of issues to draw from — school shootings, environmental destruction and racial injustice are just a few the “Accused” writers chose. Those years had also wrought significant personal changes for Chiklis, including the death of his own father. In his profession, as in life, he noted, it was best to be humble in the face of change.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” he said, quoting Socrates from inside a Canadian McMansion. The more he learns, he added, the more he has “come to know the vast chasms of what I don’t know.”
It was a useful attitude when approaching his character in the series pilot: a caring father and successful neurosurgeon who faces what, for most people, would be an unimaginable moral choice about his teenage son’s violent behavior. Although his quandary is uncommon, the father is typical of the protagonists in “Accused,” none of whom are career criminals (no prior convictions, no gang affiliations), all of whom find themselves on the wrong end of the law without a road map.
That focus on the accused instead of the cops, on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, is a novel one for the show’s developer, Howard Gordon, who was the showrunner of the breakneck Fox thriller “24” and a developer of the Showtime spy series “Homeland.” (Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison these characters are not.) So is the shift to crime-of-the-week storytelling, which Gordon saw as an opportunity.
“It is really a Trojan horse for these very human stories,” Gordon said in the house’s basement screening room, while upstairs Chiklis got back to work. “The trick of the show,” Gordon added, was to create improbable situations that leave the audience asking: “‘What would I have done? How do I feel about this person?’ Their guilt or innocence will be almost beside the point.”
Chiklis offered an actor’s perspective: “It’s great to play someone who’s just a person in an impossible situation,” he said. “Conceptually, this anthology is just fertile ground.”
Countless crime dramas begin with the discovery of a body, then work their way up to the “j’accuse” moment. Not so with “Accused,” which was adapted from an award-winning British series of the same name, created by Jimmy McGovern for the BBC. (Olivia Colman won a best supporting actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2013 for her work in Season 2.)
In the Fox series, as in the British original, “accused” is a past-tense verb; the first thing we see of Chiklis’s character, for example, is his arrival at court. Each episode reveals who the characters are and what they are said to have committed gradually, a reversal of the standard whodunit. Call it a whodunwhat.
Gordon had watched the BBC series and was struck by its structure, deciding to pursue a version for American television partly as a means to grapple with contemporary issues that seemed exacerbated — or just better exposed — by the pandemic. When he pitched the adaptation to Sony Pictures Television, with whom he and his longtime producing partner Alex Gansa have an overall deal, Gordon described it as “an empathy engine.” (Gansa is an executive producer of “Accused.”)
For Gordon and Gansa, a network procedural felt like a long way from “Homeland,” which the producers adapted from an Israeli series. But the show could also, they believed, be a way to get back at some of the questions that animated “Homeland,” like “What is America?” Gordon said. “I would say there’s a mythology, this version of America that is so far from its reality.”
Doing justice to those questions meant building a team that reflected the diversity of its subject. “Race, gender, power and capitalism are the big tickets that I am wrestling with as a white dude working in a parochial business,” Gordon said.
As such, he wanted to give much of the directing and writing work to nonwhite non-dudes. Billy Porter (“Pose”), a gay Black man, directs an episode centered on a drag queen. The writer and director Tazbah Chavez (“Reservation Dogs,” “Rutherford Falls”), who is Nüümü, Diné and San Carlos Apache, directs and co-wrote an episode about Indigenous environmental protesters. And the Oscar-winning actor Marlee Matlin (“CODA”), who is deaf, makes her directing debut with an episode about a deaf surrogate mother (played by Stephanie Nogueras).
On a recent video call, Matlin said she gave a “quick yes” after reading the script for the episode she directed, “Ava’s Story.” She said she had never before seen a story perspective like that onscreen.
“The deaf lens was missing in stories that feature deaf actors or characters,” she said through an interpreter. “I was offered this opportunity out of the blue, and I kind of froze like a deer in the headlights.”
Once she was on set, Matlin first said “action” quietly to herself, she recalled. “The first A.D. said, “You’re going to have to say that louder,’” she said. “I was a little bit giddy about having to yell out that word.”
Several of the characters in “Ava’s Story” are deaf, and there was a freedom in being able to communicate with the deaf actors who played them in American Sign Language, Matlin said.
“There was 110 percent no barriers,” Matlin said. “I can talk to them across the room, we can understand each other because we communicated in our language.”
Wrangling the schedules of name directors and a constantly shifting cast — other top actors include Abigail Breslin, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Margo Martindale and Wendell Pierce — was difficult, Gordon said (“It’s like casting a movie every single time”), but he hoped the big names would help lure viewers.
The extra effort also seemed to help create an inclusive atmosphere on set. At a taping in August on a Toronto soundstage, Chavez directed an episode that centers on Indigenous-led protests against uranium mining. Despite the serious subject of the episode, Chavez was at ease, ensuring the set was enjoyable — at one point she blasted Shania Twain songs from her phone as the actor Jennifer Podemski, who is of Anishinaabe and Jewish descent, danced beside her in a bailiff costume — and that everyone’s time was being used efficiently.
“I just don’t believe in putting people through more trauma,” Chavez said from her trailer. She was also in her element.
“I come from a protest family,” she said. “My spring breaks as a kid were spent protesting, like, Yucca Mountain nuclear waste locations.”
True to that sprit, her episode, which is set among the Navajo people, challenges the concept of the U.S. legal system being the only form of justice on North American soil. It presents tribal jurisdiction as a more culturally compatible form of law enforcement on tribal lands, a perspective not often seen onscreen, Chavez noted.
“I think the theme of the show is brilliant,” said the actor Robert I. Mesa, who is Navajo and Soboba, on break from an intense interrogation scene. “It shows what we go through as Native people in the justice system, and how we’re tried.”
Of course, no set is an island, perhaps especially with a show inspired by difficult current events. Speaking by video in late August, the actor Aisha Dee described the experience of shooting her episode, which focuses on a white nationalist who drives his car into a peaceful demonstration. The script had no shortage of similar real-world examples to draw from when it was written. Still, the world provided one more when a white gunman killed 10 Black people in a racist attack at a Buffalo supermarket.
“I think it was the day after the shooting in Buffalo, and we were filming this episode that really centered around white nationalism, race and how it’s showing its face in America,” Dee said. Filming was emotionally harrowing. She cautiously hoped, though, that by confronting such issues head on, the series might have an impact.
“Not that I think an episode of television can change structures and systems that have been in place for hundreds of years,” she said. “But if watching the episode can make someone feel a little bit less alone, I hope it teaches and comforts in a weird kind of messed up way.”