'Accused' puts a smart spin on crime with a different trial every week

At a time when roughly half of crime-movie ideas seemingly get stretched out to seven or eight episodes, "Accused" smartly goes in the opposite direction, presenting crisp little yarns in a single hour. While there's a hit-miss element to that, the best entries in this Fox anthology series sustain suspense from beginning to end, while attracting top stars with its one-and-done approach.

Based on an award-winning BBC crime series, each episode starts with the defendant in a criminal trial, while gradually providing the backstory on what they're accused of doing and what really happened, including the identity of the victim. Those flashbacks unfold from the accused's point of view, concluding with a verdict.

In an old-fashioned scheduling maneuver, Fox introduced the show -- with an episode starring Michael Chiklis as a father concerned that his teenage son might act out on violent, disturbing tendencies -- after the NFL playoffs on Sunday night, and was rewarded with the biggest audience for a broadcast or cable series debut in three years.

Moving to its regular Tuesday slot, the second episode, subtitled "Ava's Story," is among the strongest previewed, featuring a deaf woman (Stephanie Nogueras) serving as a surrogate mother to a wealthy couple, directed by Marlee Matlin.

Another standout hour focuses on a drag performer (J. Harrison Ghee) who becomes involved in a secret relationship, which is directed by Billy Porter (who recently directed his first movie, "Anything's Possible").

Adapted under the stewardship of producer Howard Gordon (whose credits include "Homeland" and "24"), each episode of "Accused" plays like a little puzzle, adding pieces that gradually bring the picture into focus.

The intricate and often surprising nature of the twists help separate it from standard crime procedurals, while providing the satisfaction of a self-contained story and resolution within each hour. Other installments will feature Margo Martindale, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Wendell Pierce, Rachel Bilson, Rhea Perlman, Betsy Brandt, Keith Carradine and Jason Ritter, among others.

Of course, for the series to work, viewers will need to buy into the format, anticipating a new foray into crime and punishment each week. How well that will hold up remains an open question, but based on the first batch of episodes, "Accused" makes a pretty solid case.

"Accused" makes its regular time period debut January 24 at 9pm ET on Fox.

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