Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
T/W: series discusses rape at length, fourth episode depicts a suicide attempt.
The excellent first season of ABC’s American Crime explored the murder of a war veteran and, in the process, conducted a deeply thoughtful and fruitful probe into questions of class, race, guilt and national identity. With its astute writing and cinematic direction, not to mention a cadre of Emmy-caliber performances, the series – from 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley – unfolded as a saga in miniature, deftly weaving weighty issues into a compelling crime narrative. Simply put, it was breathtaking.
For his second act, Ridley hasn’t altered American Crime‘s thematic course so much as expanded it. Racial tensions still simmer beneath the streets of his new Indianapolis setting. And class disparity drives the plot, especially when it focuses on the uneasy relations between officials at a prestigious private school and external community members, many of whom are parents of the school’s students. But Ridley, with heightened ambition and vision, is also eager to dive into fresh, thorny topics, concocting a story that incorporates sexual assault, social media and privilege (of the excusatory kind that national news headlines have dubbed “affluenza”).
That the showrunner succeeds so markedly is a testament to his remarkable powers as a storyteller. Moreso than in the first season, Ridley implements a Crash-esque structure here, allowing his ensemble cast to intersect in ways alternately predictable and surprising but always organic. The dynamics between his new players are tangled and compelling, from the taut alliances between members of the school’s championship basketball team to the hidden ties that bind unpopular student Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) to troubled athlete Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari).
Taylor serves as this season’s linchpin; after attending a raucous party hosted by members of the basketball team, he returns home clearly traumatized, later accusing several players of sexually assaulting him and taking photos of the incident, which are quickly splashed online. Made both victim and social pariah virtually overnight, the teen sinks into abject sorrow – much to the horror of his loving, harangued mother Anne (Lili Taylor), who goes before police and business-minded principal Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman) in hopes of holding someone accountable.
It doesn’t take long before Anne’s push for answers meets with resistance – police questionings reek of scorn and disbelief, while Graham, hoping to downplay the accusations and avoid any damage to the school’s reputation, flippantly asks coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton) to have a talk with his team and dish out some minor, slap-on-the-wrist punishments.
Feeling rightly swept under the rug, Anne goes to the press – and that’s where things get even messier. As word of the crime spreads, the team’s co-captains (Tanner and Kevin Lacroix, played by Trevor Jackson) come under investigation, which sends Lacroix’s affluent, well-respected parents (Regina King and André Benjamin) into attack mode. Meanwhile, with the town consumed by the case, a local public school, plagued by violence between its African-American and Latino students, simply struggles to keep its doors open.
American Crime has a lot on its plate this season, more than in its freshman run. “Boys don’t do that to other boys,” King’s character retorts at one point, in disbelief that her son could ever stand accused of raping a male classmate, and that same mentality dogs Taylor at every turn. He’s reluctant to come forward, quietly enraged and ashamed, convinced the world will always be against him. Social media lurks in the background, with the less lurid photos of Taylor occasionally flashing on screen, and the inescapable nature of high school’s digital echo chamber hangs over the proceedings.
And though the question of what exactly happened at that party remains unanswered by the end of the first four episodes, there’s already another less murky American crime in progress by that point – that involving a lower-class family matriarch’s pleas for justice falling on intentionally deaf ears, her pain – and her son’s – delegitimatized by their bottom-rung status in the community. Elsewhere, the series explores questions of consent, racial discrimination and criminal negligence – let it never be said that Ridley plays it safe.
But even with all its threads and themes, what’s much improved in American Crime‘s second season is a dual sense of confidence and balance. As emotionally stirring as it was to watch countless breakdowns and confrontations unfold on screen last season, the show was occasionally heavy in the extreme, and adjustments made to the series’ writing and visual palette bring literal then figurative light where it’s sorely needed.
As the season progresses, gathering steam and tension, tightly guarded secrets threaten to spill out into the open and loyalties are forged, with the relationship between Anne and Taylor taking the most damage as Ridley twists an assortment of narrative knives. American Crime has more than its fair share of shocking moments, including one in the fourth episode that’s a real doozy – but unlike soapier crime dramas, the show grounds every revelation with a deeply felt, incredibly powerful performance. Ridley has shifted power dynamics around with the actors returning from last season, but they’re all in fine form, especially King as a fierce den mother with a far reach and Hutton as a paternalistic coach who can feel his once-secure legacy giving way beneath his feet.
But the powerhouse performances, at least so far, belong to Jessup and Taylor. A painfully believable mother-son pairing, the performers build off one another in stunning, heart-wrenching ways, and their agonized pursuit of justice is what will keep viewers tuning in week after week.
With a name like American Crime, Ridley hasn’t given himself any leeway – this is a series aiming for greatness, one keen to address the most flagrant societal issues of our times in a manner simultaneously compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines believable and – perhaps most of all – insightful enough to contribute to off-screen, national discussions that have the power to influence audiences in the here and now. Were it on a premium cable network, critics would already be debating whether to call it the Next Great Drama (as it stands, this sophomore run will propel ABC squarely into the awards mix yet again).
Without seeing the season through, and finding out what outcomes Ridley presents for the struggles he has so masterfully introduced, it’s impossible to know whether American Crime will hit its high mark. But first these four episodes are plainly terrific, both as entertainment and wire-crossing social commentary, and bracing proof that Ridley is one of the boldest, brainiest provocateurs working on television right now.
Possibly ABC's finest piece of programming since Lost - it would burst at the seams with ambition and award-worthy acting were it not for John Ridley's masterful hand.