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The Impressive Evolution of ‘American Crime’

The Impressive Evolution of 'American Crime'

When we first meet Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), the
seething center of “American Crime” (ABC), his voice drops to an
almost confidential hush. He’s resigned, he explains to a counselor at his tony
Indianapolis prep school, to forgoing college: his mother, Anne (Lili Taylor),
can’t afford it, and he lacks the academic or athletic prowess to secure a
scholarship. As the conversation proceeds, though, the camera never cuts away
to the advisor’s face, and her responses sound slightly distant, out of focus—one
of many shrewd stylistic choices that mark the much-improved second season of
creator John Ridley’s anthology. Trading the wide-angle expanse of its more
didactic debut for the complications of the intimate, “American
Crime” emerges as one of the first must-see series of 2016.

READ MORE: On ABC’s ‘American Crime,’ the Series to Launch a
Thousand Think Pieces

If the initial episodes retain a certain over-reliance on
signposting the characters’ place in this social ecosystem—embarrassing photos of
Taylor are passed around on an Instagram-like app with the caption
“WT,” for “white trash”—the second season nevertheless
scuttles the more schematic treatment of the criminal justice system that
defined the first, with its unfortunate echoes of “Crash.” Here, the
series attempts instead to unravel the term “tight-knit community”
from the inside out, focusing on hairline fractures as much as systemic fault
lines. Down to the cracks in a teenager’s smart phone, “American
Crime” appears newly invested in the granular details, even if it doesn’t carry
off every last one.   

In the process, the new season develops characters that feel
more organic in both their ambitions and their foibles, despite the thorny
subject matter—Taylor’s alleged sexual assault by members of the school’s
championship-winning basketball team, which his mother reports after the
aforementioned photos turn up online. In particular, the astonishing Jessup
captures the silencing of rape survivors by individuals and institutions with
greater social or political capital, constantly catching the sound of Taylor’s
voice before it can escape his throat. “I shouldn’t have to beg people to
care about my son,” Anne remarks at one point, and “American
Crime,” with tacit reference to cases in Steubenville, Ohio and other
midsize burgs, recognizes her desperation to be heard.

With tight close-ups and muffled conversations, the second
season’s aesthetic thus manages to make concrete the smallness Taylor feels without erasing him altogether. As an unseen nurse explains the procedures for
administering a rape kit, for instance, the camera’s attention to Jessup’s
anxious expression carves a path into the machinery of such cases that
parallels Taylor’s own, bewildering and scary. Even as the series examines the
broader implications of the narrative, then, an imagined “universal”
does not supplant the distinctive: where the design of the first season, with
conversations bleeding from one scene to the next, suggested a forced hand, the
second often evinces a soft touch.

That this is not necessarily true of a star basketball player’s
demanding mother (Emmy winner Regina King) or the school’s calculating
headmaster, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman), indicates that “American
Crime,” for all its newfound assurance, is still evolving—trying, and at
times failing, to balance the demands of being topical with the finer points of
drama, including a clumsy allusion to Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia undergraduate who carried a mattress on campus to protest the university’s handling of her own alleged sexual assault. Yet even in its more heavy-handed moments, as with last season’s rather
unapologetic racist, Barb Hanlon (Huffman), I wondered if the lack of nuance
might be a closer approximation of the truth than it’s comfortable to admit.
When one of the captains of the basketball team (Joey Pollari) says, of a photo
of a female classmate, “So want to rape that,” it’s jarring—too
insistent, I thought, too brazen. That is, until I paused to consider the abuse
women receive online every day.

In fact, the strength of “American Crime” this
season may be its astute understanding of where to be subtle and where to be
bold, for in the end its subject is not only sexual assault, but also the
callousness with which allegations of sexual assault are so often treated. As
Graham, in collaboration with basketball coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton),
crafts a preemptive defense against any potential charges, the series depicts
otherwise ordinary citizens—with successful careers, loving marriages,
adolescent children—willing to turn a blind eye simply because the crime in
question doesn’t fit their preconceived notions about “rape” or its
perpetrators. “You need to be very careful with that word,” Graham
warns, or perhaps threatens, Taylor’s mother. “I know you want to believe
your son, but consider what it means to falsely accuse other young men of
something that is—quite frankly, it’s bizarre. As bad as it may seem, it can
get worse.”

The material with which “American Crime”
grapples requires a level of precision that the series so far has not displayed
consistently enough to assuage my concern that the second season may yet sour,
catching on one or another snag thrown up by the intersection of race, class,
and sexual orientation it covers. With increasing confidence, however,
“American Crime” appears, for now, to have developed the artistic
arsenal to navigate between multiple registers—caring when it comes to those,
like Taylor, who need us to listen, while never too careful to call a crime a
crime. Far from “bizarre,” the series’ second season sets in motion a
sadly common maelstrom, but it refuses to drown out those at the terrible eye
of the storm.  

“American Crime” returns Wednesday,
January 6 at 10pm on ABC. Watch the season premiere online here

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