‘American Crime’ and the Power of Anthologies

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September 9, 2016 by Jason Seligson

Connor Jessup and Lili Taylor are phenomenal in the second season of 'American Crime.'

‘American Crime’ is one of the best anthology series on TV.

The Emmys are one week away, and there’s still time to catch up on some of the shows you might have missed. Avid TV watchers have probably spent the past year hearing critics sing praises for new series like Mr. Robot, and Unreal (and the first seasons of each are absolutely worth binging). As we head into the new fall season, I want to revisit a show that may have slipped under the radar for a lot of people. My number one recommendation from the 2016 thus far is the second season of ABC’s American Crime.

Created by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), American Crime premiered in spring 2015 to modest ratings, and featured a strong cast, including Regina King, Felicity Huffman, and Timothy Hutton. The critical reception, however was mixed. The first season ended, but Crime still didn’t sound like a must-watch for me. That all changed when I began hearing about the second season, which concluded earlier this spring. Critics had definitely been converted, and after reading up on the show, I was blown away by what they were apparently doing. When I heard that Crime was telling a story of male sexual assault set against the backdrop of a wealthy private school, I knew that this wasn’t just uncharted territory for dramatic television, but a deeply important story worth telling in a larger social context.

I didn’t watch the first season of American Crime—but that’s the nice thing about anthologies; I didn’t have to. Episode One of Season 2 is the start of a brand new story, and no prior knowledge is needed in order to follow it. The show takes place in a small town in Indiana, and follows three families: The Blaines, the LaCroixs, and the Tanners. When pictures are released of high school student Taylor Blaine, presumably depicting him drunk and passed out at a party for the school’s basketball team, the school’s administrators are naturally not so thrilled. (It’s important to know that Taylor comes from a working class, single-parent household and is attending this prep school on scholarship). But the truth of what happened that night is a lot more complicated than anyone first thinks. Taylor eventually admits to his mother that he thinks something was done to him by one of the guys on the team, and his accusation sets off a chain of events that affects everyone in their town—including the Tanners, whose son Eric is the co-captain of the team. What follows is an ugly, drawn out struggle between these families as they fight each other, as well as the school’s administration.

In addition to the amazing adult cast that returned from the first season, American Crime introduces two fantastic young actors in Season 2, Connor Jessup, and Joey Pollari, who elevate the material in every scene. Jessup, who portrays Taylor, brings such wonderful depth and nuance to the character throughout his entire arc. As audience members, we naturally sympathize with Taylor for being the victim in all this, but at the same time, we’re also aware that he’s holding things back from everyone around him. He’s struggling with his sexuality, for one, and he’s pursuing a physical relationship with a boy in his old school, while still seeing his girlfriend, whom he also clearly cares about. Pollari, on the other hand, plays Eric, the basketball player accused of raping Taylor, and it’s amazing how he makes a character that you want so badly to detest somehow seem grounded and real. Throughout the season, you grow to understand Eric, but you’re certainly not keen to like him. One of the strengths of Crime is how it makes everything between Eric and Taylor feels believable, and the performances do so much to make them feel like people that any of us could know in real life.

From its opening frames, American Crime blew me away with the level of sophistication in its storytelling. The complex way that race, class, and sexuality are all viewed is frankly, remarkable (because as progressive as TV has become, these topics really aren’t being handled in this way on any other show). I have to give credit to Regina King (who won me over with her brilliant performance as Erika Murphy on The Leftovers). King did amazing work as Terri LaCroix, a black woman whose strong social standing is threatened when her son gets caught up in the rape allegations at school. And I challenge anyone to watch this show without single-parent Lili Taylor breaking your heart: you’ll fail, believe me.

I really loved the way the story unfolded over these ten episodes, especially the seamless way transitions were made between different characters and subplots. It felt a lot like reading a novel. American Crime’s second season is the kind of brave storytelling that we need more of. It’s also the kind that doesn’t provide the audience with easy answers. I won’t spoil anything, but even after the final cut to black, there are many things viewers don’t know with certainty. Sure, we can form our opinions (and surely everyone has one), but the show isn’t spoon-feeding us any information. This is a story that lives in gray areas, because it’s firmly rooted in the real world. While I’d have liked to have seen a little more clarity in the final hour, I left the season astonished at what was accomplished in ten episodes.

At a cursory glance, it might look like American Crime is merely jumping on the TV trend bandwagon. But while Crime may be the latest in a series of shows using the anthology format, it’s also one of the best. Back in 2014, True Detective famously exploded out of the gate in its first season, in what was clearly a lightning rod for other anthologies to follow, but was ultimately panned by critics and viewers alike in its second installment. Some shows burn bright and fast. Unreal was heavily criticized for its portrayal of race in its second season, and fans were mixed about what to say about the beginning of Mr. Robot’s second season (which I maintain has been mostly excellent, with the exception of one or two episodes). The point is that the TV landscape is so diffuse now that, unlike five or ten years ago, people don’t always want to invest in a show that’s labeled as amazing right away; the reality is two-fold: not all shows sustain themselves, and there’s too much damn TV to watch. Shows, like relationships, are commitments—and the answer to this fear or skepticism of commitment just might be more well-crafted anthologies.

American Crime is a real win for ABC (and network TV in general). Even though TV has changed so dramatically over the years—to the point where there’s no longer an “off season” anymore—the fall season is still important; it’s a time where networks can take big swings, and although those don’t always connect, sometimes they help bring about something fresh. American Crime has such incredible potential going forward. Granted, it will be hard to top what it accomplished in its second season, but the writers and creators aren’t bound by what came before it, and that kind of freedom that its anthology genre allows it, is not only liberating, but it just might be what TV needs more of.

 

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