If you walk away from tonight’s premiere of American Crime‘s potent second season wanting to punch a wall, then creator John Ridley has succeeded in his mission.
The 12 Years a Slave screenwriter has returned to ABC with a brand-new, gut-wrenching story that is certain to provoke extensive debates long after each episode has aired. In the vein of American Horror Story, Ridley has brought back the core cast from last year’s first season to play out an original, yet disturbingly familiar tale to anyone who reads the news. Instead of a racially charged murder and its legal aftermath in Northern California, the new season of this limited series sets the scene in Indianapolis, where rape accusations threaten to destroy a prestigious private school community.
Ridley layers the frustrations deep and hard, for both the viewer and the characters involved, and he dives in immediately with the episode’s opening lines: A 911 phone call of a female reporting a rape, though we won’t see who the voice is at the other end of the phone until the episode’s final seconds. The match that ignites this new season is lit when several explicit photos of Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), a scholarship student at the Leyland School, begin to circulate online. The pics show a semi-conscious Taylor, seemingly high and wasted, in compromising positions with his pants off. This results in Taylor’s three-week suspension, delivered to both the teen and his flabbergasted single mother, Anne (Lili Taylor, one of the returning season 1 cast members), in boilerplate precision by the school’s dean.
I say “flabbergasted” when describing Anne’s reaction, not because of what the pictures entailed, but because this is the beginning of an endless path of cold formality, false compassion, and ultimately indifference that she receives at the hands of the school’s administration. She is given no explanation for why this has happened to Taylor, nor does she receive any sort of concern that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t his fault. And in the definitive display of unreasonable school jurisdictions, she’s not even able to see the incriminating photos — she is told to have Taylor show them to her.
Understandably, Taylor completely shuts down following the suspension, leaving a worried and confused Anne with nowhere else to turn to but his non-Leyland girlfriend, Evy Dominguez. Evy is played by newcomer Angelique Rivera, and already she is poised to be the breakout star of this season. A short scene establishes that Evy is her family’s caretaker, with both parents suffering from health issues. So when Anne sends an SOS and begs Evy to a) show her the pictures and b) tell her what the hell happened to her son, she relents, even though this is the last thing she needs right now. Evy is only able to provide the bare bones of the pictures’ origins, but her information is secondary to the calm fury in her voice as she describes her experience at the Leyland party, which was populated by snooty girls who judged everything about her appearance. In short, a bunch of popular basketball players invited Taylor (and Evy) to their party. The boys took Taylor into one room, and Evy was in another, but when she went to find her boyfriend, he was, in her words, “really messed up.” She witnessed the photos being taken, but as to any sort of drugging or sexual violation, she wasn’t present for that.
With at least a little more information on hand now, Anne confronts her son at home, in a series of brilliantly orchestrated scenes that shift from placing the viewer as a distant fly on the wall to just inches away from the characters’ faces. Both fuel the necessary tension as Anne desperately tries to find out what happened to Taylor at that party.
NEXT: “I think someone did something to me”