To call ABC’s American Crime “of its time” is an understatement, given the show was born of an expressed desire to braid multiple strands of the cultural zeitgeist into a scripted prestige drama. Creator John Ridley brought the concept to ABC, who was eager to work with Ridley fresh off his Oscar win for adapting Solomon Northrup’s memoir into the 12 Years A Slave screenplay. Slave’s success hinted at the existence of a wide audience for thorny, provocative, even confrontational storytelling, and Ridley ably met the demand with American Crime’s first season, a gutsy dissection of a brutal murder and the ugly, primal behavior it ignites in the surrounding community.
Were this a different era in television, Crime would have excelled as a standalone miniseries, but in the midst of the anthology craze, ABC elected to have Ridley reboot the series annually. The freedom to reconcieve the show with each new season is as liberating as it is potentially disastrous, which should sound familiar to fans of Crime’s closest format peer, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. But Ridley is in a far more precarious position than is Murphy, who is only held to essential storytelling standards when he rolls out new installments of AHS. Because Crime deals with intersectional stories of race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality, it invites criticism that far exceeds qualitative concerns. And in telling its stories in such a bluntly provocative way, Crime tends to keep its audience at arm’s length. It’s impossible to sink into a story even as you question its motives.
The rift between Crime’s storytelling and its impish politics felt less pronounced in its first season, which followed a fairly traditional whodunnit structure despite its disproportionate interest in a bird’s-eye view of the crime’s aftermath. Season two, in which the chain reaction is triggered by a sexual assault between high school students, is an entirely different creature both thematically and rhythmically. And while it’s far more daring, interesting, and ambitious than anything Crime tried in season one, it’s also less emotionally accessible, though not for the reasons Ridley appears to suspect.
Season two moves Crime’s action from Modesto, California to Indianapolis, Indiana, where the income inequality is symbolized by a pair of high schools—a public school roiled by interracial tensions among students, and the ritzy, private Leyland Academy, where the students self-stratify based on wealth. The disparate worlds collide when Taylor (Connor Jessup), a white Leyland scholarship student from the wrong side of the tracks, reports being sexually assaulted during an unsupervised boozy blowout hosted by Leyland’s basketball team. Viral photos surface of Taylor at the party, half-clothed and fall-down drunk. He insists he only had one or two beers, which he concludes were spiked considering how little of the night he can remember. “I think something happened to me,” he tearfully confesses to his mother Anne (Lili Taylor), stopping short of specific criminal language. But Anne has no problem using the word rape even if Taylor won’t, and she crusades for justice even as Taylor resists giving the incident a name, much less pursuing charges.
In the four episodes screened for critics, Crime is most interested in exploring the question of whether the word “rape,” or even the concept of rape, could belong to Taylor. When Anne reports the incident to Leyland’s careerist headmaster Leslie (Felicity Huffman), Leslie warns Anne not to go throwing the R-word around like so much litigious confetti, and when Anne calls the authorities, the responding officers can barely wrap their brains around the idea of a male rape victim. There’s just as much incredulity from Terri and Michael (Regina King and André Benjamin), who balk at the notion after their son, Leyland basketball captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson), is ensnared in the investigation. Meanwhile, Dan (Timothy Hutton), Leyland’s basketball coach, struggles to insulate his players from scrutiny mostly as a function of his inability to grasp what they might have done.
The crime at the core of the season evokes a gender-flipped version of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case that led to two juvenile court convictions of high school football players in 2013. In making the victim of the crime a young man, one who feels constantly devalued due to his relative poverty, Ridley makes a thorny issue thornier and takes the show from provocative to obnoxious. Too often the characters don’t feel like people as much as walking representations of such binary opinions as “men can’t get raped,” which never feels authentic when the characters say it. Prison rape has long been a go-to punchline, even in the mildest of comedies, so it comes across as disingenuous when the characters act as if the concept of sex between two men, consensual or otherwise, is a totally foreign concept. This kind of experiential blind spot is exactly what Crime aims to explore, but with all its narrative rails electrified, it can come across cold, more like a philosophical salon than an emotional journey.
What prevents Crime from feeling like a dramatic exercise is its stellar cast, most of which returns from the first season in radically different roles. Huffman, who was fearless as a frustrated grieving mother in season one, turns in an equally fierce performance as a bureaucrat trying to protect her fiefdom at all costs. Huffman works closely with Hutton, who first played her estranged husband. He now plays her professional colleague, though their relationship will get just as rocky as the investigation puts them at odds. King, who’s on a tear between her Emmy win for Crime’s first season and her stellar work on The Leftovers, also returns as a radically different character. She plays a corporate maven and tiger mom with the economic wherewithal and social capital to insulate her son from the consequences of his actions. The trio of ringers anchors the cast, but the magnificent performances abound, thanks in part to Ridley’s directorial preferences. He frames his characters with intimate, unwavering close-ups, even in conversations that seem to demand a two-shot, giving the cast countless opportunities to give expressive, nuanced performances.
The writing isn’t always as nuanced, which makes Crime hard to love even when it’s so easy to admire. Though it’s imperfect, Crime injects important, if embryonic, ideas to the broader conversation, and those ideas land with an impact despite the oily fingerprints all over them. Crime’s provocation is needlessly excessive, but the show manages to feel vital all the same.