John Ridley's critically acclaimed drama opens its second season with a brand-new story, but with familiar faces
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”
As Taylor stumbles over his words, the agony of reliving the experience almost too painful to bear, he admits that he didn’t want to tell his mother what happened because he was “ashamed.” He is only able to utter the words “I think someone did something to me” before collapsing into Anne’s arms, both sobbing at the sheer horror of the situation.
So we know something terrible did happen, and given the circumstantial evidence presented, it is very possible that Taylor was drugged and sexually violated. But, American Crime isn’t going to reveal its hand this early on, which is why we don’t have any sort of concrete proof here. Yet.
Anne’s lack of tangible facts sets both her (and us) up for the infuriating narrative turn that happens next. Enter Felicity Huffman, also back on the American Crime roster, this time as the picture-perfect model of a school administrator. Huffman’s character, Headmaster Leslie Graham, is first introduced hosting a fundraising gala for the Leyland School, her bright, kind smile doing little to hide her mission, which is to manipulate those rich parents to “get out your checkbooks and start writing” — because they’re only $18 million short from their $50 million goal.
So when Anne takes a meeting with Leslie to seek the school’s help in punishing the kids who hurt her son, the headmaster oozes compassion, takes copious notes, and promises Anne that the Leyland administration takes her concerns “very seriously.”
Unfortunately for Anne, because she is a distraught mother, and because she is not in possession of all the facts (which is not her fault — if Taylor was drugged and sexually assaulted, it’s plausible he was so traumatized he couldn’t bring himself to say the words), she comes off as a rambling mess during the meeting. The only “proof” she has of Taylor’s assault is what she describes as, “It’s what he didn’t say. Things he couldn’t talk about.”
But before we get to the scene that sets up Leslie Graham as the villain this season (at least for now), Huffman’s character needs to get to some headmastering. Translation: Pass the buck.
She confronts Leyland’s cherished basketball coach, Dan Sullivan (season 1 returnee Timothy Hutton), and firmly tells him to “talk to his players.” As she explains, “We have to make it clear that we take this matter seriously.” But just from that sentence alone, you can tell that she cares way more about keeping up appearances than actually helping Taylor. Now, is that because he’s just a scholarship kid, whose diner-manager mother can’t assist in reaching that $50 million goal? Is it because she wants to squash this problem before it ruins Leyland’s reputation? Or because like so many administrators, she’d rather get someone else to handle it? It’s probably a little bit of all three.
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So, Dan does as he’s told, by gathering his team in the locker room — but, just like we don’t know what exactly happened at that party, we don’t get to see what that discussion with his players entailed. Though we do get to see Dan’s postmortem at home, with his wife, Steph (a new addition to the American Crime cast, Hope Davis), complaining how he was saddled with solving this problem, when he’d much rather spend the time figuring out how to control his teenage cheerleader daughter.
“I don’t like that I’m the one that’s got to go in and dig the dirt,” he says.
NEXT: “You need to be careful with that word”
But whatever “dirt” Dan dug up was enough to satisfy his boss, because when Anne returns for a follow-up meeting with Leslie, she is given the standard, unsympathetic treatment. Other than informing Anne that “there are individuals who will be disciplined,” Leslie lays on a huge heap of victim-blame on Taylor, stating that he, not the kids who supposedly put him in this vulnerable position, was the one engaging in lewd behavior.
Anne’s frustration reaches its boiling point here, causing the necessary, if dangerous, use of the word “rape” to describe what happened to her son. But it doesn’t make an ounce of difference, because instead of getting Leslie to take her more seriously, it has the opposite effect. The headmaster pulls out her Damage Control Handbook of Unhelpful Phrases and cautions Anne to be “careful with that word.” Another thing she pulls out? Anne’s original statement, which she now throws back in the anguished parent’s face, deeming it to be “barely coherent,” and including “accusations based on things your son didn’t say.”
The real villain here is more so the uncooperative school administration than Leslie herself — though she’s not doing herself any favors as its mouthpiece. What’s more important is seeing how American Crime illustrates its detrimental effect on people like Anne, who starts looking more like a raving lunatic than a concerned mother by the end of the conversation.
After she’s encouraged to “engage” Taylor (a recurring word in Leslie’s bureaucratic arsenal) and help him “make better choices,” Anne is then pretty much told that there’s no way her son could’ve been attacked by such good, upstanding boys. Because Leslie is living in a fantasy world, in which “bizarre” things like male-on-male rape at an upscale private school just don’t happen. Or, at least that’s the image she’s so fiercely trying to maintain for the public. Hey, that’s her job, right?
Well, Leslie, good luck with that, because the second you offered Anne those benevolent “counseling services,” she marched straight out of your office, and dialed 911. Now we know who the voice behind the caller was at the start of the series. This was a terrific note to end the episode on, because you feel both a sense of justice — with the cops involved, Leslie’s job just got a whole lot harder — and a sense of dread. Since Anne has no proof that it was rape, the question is, has she now made Taylor’s life infinitely worse?