"American Crime" is one of the best-acted shows on network television, and one of the most well-crafted. It's also one of the most frustrating, a series that seems constantly at war with itself and a step or two away from greatness.
John Ridley's ambitious series is always admirable: season 1's look at the racism, class resentment, and systemic injustice that spirals out of a single crime featured career-high performances from Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, W. Earl Brown and others, as well as a sympathetic portrait of those affected by the crime. But there's something freeze-dried about "American Crime": everything is slightly pre-determined and over-emphasized.
That's a problem that carries over to the premiere episode of the show's second season, which uses the same cast but a new crime, in this case a sexual assault. The show has been relocated from Modesto, Cal. to a private high school in Indianapolis, where basketball player Taylor (Connor Jessup) is suspended from school when photos of him drunk and passed out are sent around.
Taylor's mother, Anne (Lili Taylor), is furious with him at first, but listens when Taylor says that "I think something happened to me," with accusations thrown towards his fellow basketball players. Also in the mix: Headmaster Leslie Graham (Huffman), trying to protect the school; coach Dan Sullivan (Hutton), who's concerned with his own daughter's flirtatious behavior; Taylor's girlfriend Evy (Angelique Rivera), the only witness to the crime; soon-to-be-accused basketball players Kevin (Trevor Jackson, clearly bothered by his actions) and Eric (Joey Pollari, not so much); and Kevin's parents (Regina King and Andre "3000 from OutKast" Benjamin).
The show's set-up is promising, a gender-reversed version of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case that led to the convictions of two high school football players in 2013. Ridley (who wrote and directed the premiere) has a chance to deal not only with how a community deals with sexual assault accusations, but with homophobia and class in a high school environment (Taylor is from a poor family, and the images are emblazoned with the letters "WT" for "White Trash").
In bits and pieces, "American Crime" handles the fallout from a crime very well: an early scene shows Taylor in a college meeting with a guidance counselor, with the camera firmly positioned on him while the counselor is mostly muffled, her hands shown more than her face; the same happens with Anne later, in which she details her son's trauma while the camera shows Huffman's hands at work taking notes. Both scenes show the disconnect between victim and system, with neither authority figure showing much interest in the person they should be helping. Graham's disconnect is particularly purposeful, her few attempts to comfort Anne strained and false. She's concerned about the school's reputation more than the student.
That's a feeling echoed throughout the episode: the school's meeting to suspend Taylor shows no interest in what happened, only in what's in the picture, showing the thoughtless cruelty in zero tolerance rules. Graham instructs Sullivan to have a talk with the players not as a way to find out what happened, but as a way to keep them in line. A later scene with Taylor, in which the word "rape" is thrown out, shows a cold, measured "You want to be careful with that word...you are emotional, barely coherent."
None of how the characters react to the crime feels wrong, exactly — it's conceivable, expected even, that a school headmaster might be more interested in protecting the school's reputation than helping a student, or that a basketball player might show a picture of a girl to a friend and say something as gross as "I want to rape her," or that Sullivan's attempt to find out what happened would boil down to a lame locker room speech about "respect," or that the less overtly creepy basketball player might still get too forceful with his girlfriend, then angrily remark that she's "acting like you something" when she tells him to back off.
The trouble with "American Crime" is never in the action, but in the words, which always feel too measured, as if a term paper on community and systemic responses to crime has come to life. Everything feels engineered to be about a Big Theme; no matter how intelligently conceived the story is, everything feels a bit too much in service of a thesis before that story.
The odd thing about "American Crime" is that the blunt writing is matched with a clinical, detached directing style that somewhat undercuts the heavy-handedness while underlining how artificial much of this seems. Ridley's not an unskilled filmmaker, and his penchant for long takes and tight close-ups often serves the actors well. But there's a deliberate airlessness to the way the show is cut together, as if the action has been put on a slide to study under a microscope rather than brought to life. "American Crime" is full of confrontations, between school administrators and parents, parents and children (Anne has both a coffee shop meeting with Taylor's girlfriend and a shouting match with her son before he tells her what he thinks happened), but as superbly acted as they are, it feels like the show's writing, acting and directing are all suited for a different show. That makes "American Crime" an easy show to admire and a difficult one to love.
-That said, the cast is uniformly excellent. Taylor and Huffman get the heavy lifting in much of the episode, but the younger cast members are equally impressive, especially Jessup, who acts as if every memory (or lack thereof, as he was drugged) of what happened has triggered a gag reflex.
-There's no real sense of place in this episode, something I hope later episodes improve on. Where the last episode had at least some regional specifics with regards to Modesto, this feels like it could just as easily take place in Arizona as Indiana.
-I went to a similar private high school. I didn't get in trouble enough to experience them first-hand, but our zero tolerance rules were equally Draconian and stupid, more about protecting reputation that helping a kid who messed up.
-A former editor of mine said that last season of "American Crime" left him cold because it was like "The Wire" with no sense of humor. That's carried over here, and while it's difficult to find much of a place for humor in a sexual assault case, it points to a larger problem in "American Crime," where everything feels rehearsed next to the lived-in naturalism of "The Wire." It's not entirely fair to compare one series to one of the greatest achievements in the history of the medium. Sometimes you have to admit you're not a fair man.