Who would have thought that ABC’s American Crime would emerge as the best show of the year so far in its second season? The low ratings for the good, but not great season one would have spelled “cancel” at any other network, yet ABC stuck with its John Ridley-produced anthology series, and season two is simply outstanding. Covering a sexual assault at a prestigious high school, the second season of American Crime looks at sexuality, race, and class through the perspectives of many different characters.
American Crime doesn’t hold back from the gritty reality, and it emerges as a bleak tale with a lot of truth behind it. There’s no sugar-coating the content here, because it is dark stuff, surprisingly for a network series. After Taylor (Connor Jessup) is the victim of a rape at a high school basketball team party, events are set into motion as members of the team are accused, and the school comes under fire as headmaster Leslie (Felicity Huffman) must salvage the school’s reputation. Meanwhile, team captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) is facing pressure at home as allegations against their family threaten his mother Terri (Regina King) and father Michael (Andre Benjamin). Additionally, Eric (Joey Pollari) struggles with his sexuality and accusations against him as coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) tries to rally the team after this horrific event.
If this sounds like a lot, and it is, don’t fret because American Crime manages to keep all the balls in the air and only manages to drop a few. Everything is linked together, and one of the show’s most potent themes is the chain reaction of events that one big incident can have. The series examines how the sexual assault affects the small town, the elite private school, the small lower-income school that Taylor transfers to, and every family and individual in between. A few plots are quickly resolved, which is a shame, including a messy strand towards the end involving a comic hacker threatening to expose the school feels a bit out of place amid the more grounded elements. But on the whole the plot is cohesive and brilliantly linked like a web.
What I love about American Crime is that the show does not throw any value judgments towards any of its characters. Any other series would have a clear protagonist and clear antagonist, but American Crime manages to avoid that by giving its characters so many facets to their personality. They become real individuals, and I got very invested in their stories, particular Taylor’s and Eric’s. These multi-dimensional characters are refreshing to watch as they make mistakes but learn from them, avoiding the traditional “likable” or “unlikable” categories. I grew frustrated with coach Dan’s failure to admit that his team did wrong, but I appreciated his treatment towards his daughter Becca, whose drug-dealing gets Taylor into even more trouble. Leslie, in particular, was always riveting to watch as she tries to please the school’s board and uses media-friendly terminology in describing the incident. The well-developed characters make the stakes of American Crime feel real, and boy they certainly are.
So American Crime features a stand-out cast (young actors Jessup and Pollari are particularly excellent), a riveting story with a great pace of just ten episodes, and plenty of complex characters, so what? Luckily, the direction takes it a step further to make the heavy moments have the impact they need. I rarely notice direction on television series, but American Crime really stood out. Just watch the rape kit scene in episode two. The camera focuses entirely on Taylor and his face, while a nurse explains to him the procedure off-screen. We see every reaction, every small nuance in Jessup’s performance, and the moment sticks. Other scenes, as well, quick dialogue’s between Taylor’s mother (Lili Taylor) and headmaster Leslie, moments between Eric and his divorced parents, are elevated simply because of Ridley or his team’s direction. It makes the heartbreaking scenes all the more heartbreaking, and some of it becomes tough to watch.
American Crime doesn’t lose steam towards the end of its run, but I did feel that the climax came too soon. Episode seven and eight are a doozy, eight in particular, as a shooting rocks the school to its core. The decision to feature Colombine teachers and victims in a sort of documentary break from the drama in episode eight is extremely risky, but it works. These individuals give an element of humanity to the already-very real plot, and we’re reminded of situations like these that do occur. The ambiguous ending may leave some viewers frustrated, but American Crime‘s refusal to wrap up storylines with a bow is refreshing instead of rushing to resolve everything. The final scene is absolutely brilliant, and while you’ll be left questioning the story and its characters, you’ll also question how you think and how your privilege informs these judgments. That’s the mark of great television, the ability to have an impact beyond the screen.