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In Appreciation of "American Crime"

It's a common beliefe that there’s a ceiling to how poignant and brutally honest network television can be.  The often accurate stereotype is that the hour-long dramas that inspire debate and passion are found on pay or premium cable; network TV is for rote procedurals and other series unwilling or unable to truly push the envelope.

Yet In the month since it has premiered, the second season of Academy-Award winning writer John Ridley’s (12 Years a Slave) “American Crime” has been flying in the face of pre-conceived notions about the limitations of network television. [More...]

Even given the fine storytelling and acting of the anthology series’ first season, nothing could have prepared viewers for just how much the second season would step up the quality. 

The current season, which focuses on the alleged male-on-male sexual assault between students at an affluent private school delves into race, class, gender and sexuality with a level of honesty and richly complicated nuance rarely (if ever) seen on network television.  The hard truth of many of the issues presented in the series isn’t given via easily digestible sound bites delivered by characters who are stand-ins for ideas of people rather than fully-formed human beings (see Paul Haggis’ Crash). 

Terri (Regina King) has a tough talk with her son (Trevor Jackson)

One of the most important scenes thus far is a conversation between Terri LeCroix (a phenomenal Regina King, whose praises have already been sung here) and her son Kevin (Trevor Jackson) who is being investigated for his role in the assault, which took place at a party. In the scene, the tough but fiercely loving mother lays out the realities of being black in spaces that are largely white. More specifically, she talks about the defense mechanism of employing distrust and keeping white people, even friends at an arm’s length. This cuts deep, is uncomfortable to watch, and may even seem a little unfair to some viewers. It also communicates something rarely spoken on television or in film yet so universal to the black American experience.  Ridley, whose screenplay was admittedly the one aspect of 12 Years a Slave that gave me pause, manages to avoid making the exchange feel soap box-y or clearly meant to convey a capital C Concept. It feels like a specific, but resonant conversation between a weary, protective mother and her naïve son.

The issue of queerness is also quite prominent -- specifically how our culture, even today when intolerance is more or less socially unacceptable, reacts with fear-based hysteria to the idea of homosexuality among children. The show addresses (not directly, but evidently) the disastrously tragic effects of a culture that still forces boys and girls to explore possible same-sex attraction behind closed doors like a nasty little secret, shirking safety and self-care in the process. While not stripping alleged rapist Eric (a wonderful Joey Pollari) of any real responsibility, the show subtly asks the question—would this have happened in a culture that gave our queer children the same acceptance to explore their sexuality as their straight counterparts?

Joey Pollari as a troubled high school student

It’s also lovely to see so many talented actresses over forty (Felicity Huffman, Lili Taylor, Hope Davis and the aforementioned Regina King) given complicated roles to play on the same show. There are no clear villains or heroes, no easy answers. Self-preservation and loyalty drive a lot of the decisions on this show populated by deeply realistic flesh and blood characters.

Given all the recent talk about diversity, it should be noted that “American Crime” boasts one of the most diverse staff of writers and directors on television. Resentment at the idea of “diversity for its own sake” can be understood (if not necessarily empathized with) in that a changing of the guard can often feel scary to those already established. But, the result clearly shows that by allowing different voices (many different voices including the ones currently working) to tell stories, it can unlock our imaginations about television, storytelling and art in general. That is a wonderful thing.

"American Crime" can be seen on Wednesdays at 10:00 PM on ABC

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Reader Comments (14)

Strongly acted and written. Yet like some other SERIOUS crime dramas (such as Law and Order shows like SVU, it's a bit too serious and the focus on the icky crimes, motives and the victim's trauma is not pleasant. So I quit watching after awhile BUT you are right about the acting -especially Regina, and to a lesser degree Felicity. Both should be in the awards discussion next year. Personally I thought Hope Davis was criminally underused but maybe they finally started putting her to use after I left.

February 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

The best thing on network television at the moment.

February 11, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjason

Great write up. I love the ensemble acting of season one yet I find the show as whole a bit too heavy-handed and dreary. But so far in season two every aspect has been riveting and no other show on air right now is cutting as deep as this one. There are at least 6 people giving Emmy-worthy performances on the show, I'm especially happy to see Lili Taylor getting a belated comeback after being under/misused for so long, she is gonna have a tough time fighting Paulson and Dunst if she is campaigned lead but I'm rooting for her.

Speaking of Paulson, it's pretty interesting to watch FX's American Crime Story airing at the same time, like a companion piece with almost opposite approach. A darkly humorous show about real life famous crime with big stars playing public figures will definitely receive more attentions and accolades during awards season. I won't be surprised it beat both American Crime and Fargo at the Emmy.

February 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterYitong

This season is KILLING it. I thought about giving the first season a try but I immediately gravitated towards this topic of this season (it was basically my master's thesis) but they took it way deeper and complex than I would imagine for network television. Every episode is beyond compelling with the themes of masculinity and sexuality (but I think race is a tad shoehorned at the moment.)

Last night's episode me me gasp at least three times.

Also, if you have to sit me next to my mother while strangers read off my kinky sexts to some dude, you had better just kill me right there and then.

It's also interesting in how Felicity Huffman's character is supposed to be this sort of villain but I can't even hate on her because she's just doing a damn great job acting in the best interests of her school. I feel like she's going to have a really big moment soon.

Other than that the "kids" are bringing it the hardest to me. Especially both boys directly involved in the crime.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Thank for this! I'm in love with this show. First season was great and this one is even better. Felicity Huffman and Regina King are sensational.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This has been great so far. Brutally honest scene this week dealing with misogyny and homophobia. I have no idea how it will all play out. Apparently the next episode takes things to another level or at least in another direction. So many strong performances mentioned and I would add Connor Jessup.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdavid

I didn't watch the first season (maybe I will now!) but I'm so glad I catch this one cause it's SENSATIONAL. I'm in owe of the trreatment of such a subject matter with intelligence, frankness and even bluntness. I love the really long close ups during key scenes in which you only see one characters reactions to someone off screen. I'm also really impressed with Felicity's performance (even more than Regina's) I can't take my eyes off of her when she's on screen. Best show on tv right now

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

I recently caught up with this OnDemand, It's really something else and the casting is perfect. I didn't get a chance to watch season 1, but I will definitely try to. This season so far has just been spectacular and thought provoking.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrittani

I am a fan of American Crime, and it's absolutely true that there's nothing else like it on network television at the moment. I was intrigued, if skeptical, about the subject matter before the season started, and have been pleased to see the writers really lean into uncomfortable moments and keep the audience off balance with unexpected plot developments. That said, it definitely suggests a writers' room without much experience in the realm of educational administration (my day job). They're laying the sheen of evil incarnate just a bit too thick on Felicity Huffman's character - she's meant to be reprehensible, but I don't buy some of her character's decision making.

While I'm certainly more compelled by this season's story arc, I found the first season to be vastly more interesting on a formal level. That first set of episodes employed an audacious sound mix and jarring editing scheme that made each episode pretty stunning to watch. Aside from the inspired early episodes trick of nearly muting one character's guidance counselor during their interactions (too suggest how little such professionals' words matter to emotionally volatile teenagers) and that bravura long take at the ballet last week, there hasn't been much in the way of interesting visual or sonic choices. The directors are favoring tight close-ups, which do add a suffocating aura as they showcase the actors' performances... but don't so much make for involving imagery.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

I've been catching up with this season on Hulu since the praise has been so high and it's a total knockout. It's REALLY tough going, though - I have to will myself to watch it. But everything you say here is so true. It's great, compelling TV and totally unlike anything on TV, especially on network TV.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Best show, best acting ( all around ) ... I love Lily Taylor in this ) ... hope this series continues to knock it out of the ballpark.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Thank you for this for a number of reasons, not the least of which: I wasn't aware that it was back! Season 1 was painfully amazing and I was waiting for the return. So I binged the first several episodes late last night (highly recommend) and am groggy but pleased this morning.

And I basically agree with RJ's second paragraph.

February 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Incredible. This is what scripted drama should be. I'm talking TV, film, theatre... it's extraordinary.

Last night's episodes was one of the most emotionally bruising experiences I can recall.

February 18, 2016 | Registered CommenterGlenn Dunks

One scene remains with me long after the credits finished rolling. The scene in which Taylor walks into the woods--blank tablet in one hand, gun in the other--and the viewer is suddenly surrounded by this heart wrenching, long, silent anticipation of hearing a gun shot is masterful! It is masterful because it leads the viewer right into the blessed relief of hearing the second shot just to come to the frightened realization of what that shot is foreshadowing. Just brilliant.

February 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterG.Waters

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