Credit: Ryan Green/ABC

Rape. Race. Class. Sexual identity. Bullying. Cyber-bullying. Prejudice. Privilege. Entitlement. Over-protective parenting. Neglectful parenting. Personal, institutional, and social responsibility. Legal justice. Vigilante justice. No justice at all. The second season of American Crime was a crucible of incendiary issues, stirred with rigorous thought and flawed characters treated with tender care. It offered no escape from the world; it sucked us deeper into it. It dared to entertain with sober tragedy, something that’s rare for broadcast television and not often attempted outside the realm of darkly comic anti-hero pulp. The only hope was found in ambiguity of unresolved lives. No, American Crime wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t perfect, either, but it was richly rewarding all the same. I won’t easily forget it, and I don’t want to, either.

In grappling with so many aspects of contemporary society, with a complete and shattering statement, American Crime became one of TV’s most essential shows and affirmed the exciting possibilities of the modern anthology format established by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson) and Noah Hawley’s Fargo. I want to see creator John Ridley, an accomplished filmmaker who won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave, keep telling stories with the franchise. The ratings haven’t been good. The show’s future is uncertain. I didn’t help the cause much: I came to the season late. American Crime deserves more time. I need more dramas like it in my life and challenging my worldview and apathy.

Just what exactly happened on the night of the Captain’s Party, a traditional bacchanal hosted by the boy’s celebrated basketball team at the prestigious and private Leyland High School? Was Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) — a misfit teen conflicted about his sexuality — raped and assaulted? Did Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari), a closeted gay jock, exploit a confused kid or simply miss the changing circumstances of what he thought was a consensual sexual encounter? What role did the team’s captain and star Kevin LaCroix (Trevor Jackson) play in Taylor’s suffering and humiliation?

From the jump, American Crime presented this he-said/he-said suburban Rashomon as a mystery to be solved. But it also catalyzed a widening gyre of story, drawing in families, individuals, and communities representing different racial and socioeconomic perspectives. Kevin, African-American, was the child of well-educated, prosperous, protective parents (Regina King, Andre L. Benjamin). Eric, white, was the child of divorcing, financially strapped parents (Brent Anderson, Emily Bergl) too overwhelmed to handle their son’s crisis or sexual orientation. Taylor, also white, was the son of a struggling single mom (Lili Taylor) with a checkered past. He also had a Latino girlfriend (Angelique Rivera) at a public school where tensions between Hispanics and blacks ran high. The “issues” that I itemized in the opening paragraph didn’t lead the storytelling, or at least, it didn’t feeling like it. With a couple exceptions, they seemed to emerge organically, from character-driven action and reaction.

You could argue that cynicism pushed the story forward. If the worst thing could happen, it usually did. Cover-ups. Hate speech. A school shooting. When presented with ethical dilemmas, characters routinely chose against virtue. Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman), Leyland’s skilled headmaster, conspired against truth and justice to protect the school from scandal. Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton), Leyland’s moralistic basketball coach, betrayed his principals to shield his drug-dealing daughter (Sky Azure Van Vilet) from the consequences of her actions. Kevin’s father, Michael, suppressed his son’s confession of complicity to protect his promising future. Arguably the most questionable choice was the late-game introduction of Sebastian De La Torre (Richard Cabral), a hacktivist with dubious motivations, who was tasked by Taylor’s mom, Anne, to expose Leyland’s sins. He represented a deus ex machina gambit for Anne — and a way to manufacture a climax for the season.

Still, American Crime earned almost all of its twists and turns with great acting and carefully written scenes that took their time to reach authenticity. They captured themes that are real and relevant, culturally and personally. In Leslie and Dan, I recognize the folly of finding identity in your work and the limits of living as a brand as opposed to a person. In all the parents, I recognize the dangerous want to protect your children from their mistakes at the cost of their moral development. In everyone, I recognize the pull of self-preservation over social responsibility; the temptation to navigate ethical and moral challenges of modern life by staying in the gray zone, or doing nothing; the fear of screwing up and being messy in a judgy, forgiveness-challenged culture.

Scene after scene gave us so much richness, so much artfulness, be it a long, evolving argument full of recrimination and moral wrestling between Dan and his wife Steph (Hope Davis) in their home shot like an eavesdrop, or an audacious single-take capture of a modern dance performance, a beautifully performed thing unto itself that sensually expressed themes of community and divisiveness, exposure and hiddenness, relational violence and fraught intimacy, alienation and loneliness. Often, I pressed “pause” to reflect on thoughtful passages or outright provocations, like when Eric railed against the accusations against him. “Someone screams ‘Rape!’ and nobody cares what really happened. How does he get to own the night? How does he get to own me?” Or when Kevin’s mom, Terri, was deemed a liability to her white boss after her private emails — full of hyperbolic, racially charged frustration over what was happening with her son — were posted on the Internet. “The way we express [our experience] out of context can be taken to mean something that they don’t,” she said, adding: “It may not sound correct, but I have a right to my privacy.” In America, there is no safe space, online or off, to be messy and raw — and not white — even in your mind. This scene was followed by a shot of Terri cleaning out her desk, in an office that was all clear windows and white walls and frames — a simple storytelling beat and casual, unforced visual metaphor for Terri’s predicament, for structural racism, for any number of things, really.

A few choices that didn’t work as well. In episode 8, directed by Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), snippets of interviews with survivors of school shootings (including Columbine) and LGBT victims of bullying were interspersed throughout the hour. I didn’t find them heavy-handed or manipulative, but they didn’t feel essential, either. Yet I was moved and grateful for these moments all the same. I took them not as a self-serving proclamation of the show’s relevancy but an expression of care for the world that inspired the drama. They failed as framing devices, but they succeeded as footnotes.

In a season of powerful performances, two spectacular turns suffused it with emotional resonance. Jessup was sensational in the challenging role of Taylor, a chaotic mystery to himself, whose journey to clarity and maturity was derailed by recklessness and wrong. His scenes with Lili Taylor’s beleaguered, overmatched Anne were always wrenching. (Lili Taylor was something special, too.) Episode 7 — in which Taylor succumbed to despair, numbness and nihilism and pushed the story into tragedy by killing one of his tormentors — was a tour de force for Jessup and for writer/director Ridley. I’m haunted by his face and that slight Mona Lisa curl that could be interpreted any number of ways. Pride. Resignation. Detachment. Pollari was equally compelling as Eric, a boy with a clear and painful understanding of his identity, furious with his limitations of self and his circumstances. He was mesmerizing in close-up, with his blazingly sad eyes and frank talk. We could have hated this character. Instead, he demanded our empathy and won it.

American Crime ended with a willful lack of resolution on many character fronts, a choice that initially irked me but I’ve come to respect. (I saw the episode on Monday, so I’ve had a few days to sit with it.) Taylor was left in a no-win scenario. He could take a plea deal that would bring a quick end to a community nightmare or ask for a jury trial that would lay bare the truth but also bring him greater punishment. He was attracted to the former option — it gave him an illusory sense of power over his circumstances, even a delusion of heroic martyrdom — but he hesitated when asked for his plea. His crossroads moment was cross-cut with one for Eric. Jump in a fast car with a stranger and run away, or return to his family and face his troubled reality? Flight or fight? Escape or engage? His choice is ours.

Episode Recaps

American Crime
2015 abc series
  • TV Show
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