ABC drama is dark, but well crafted
Anthology series have taken us many places these past few years: inside the minds of deeply flawed cops, between the walls of murder houses and into far-off towns where citizens greet us with unforgettable accents. “American Crime” set up its own world during its inaugural season by twisting issues of race and prejudice while poking and prodding a small-town murder.
Now, in its sophomore season reset, the series is taking viewers to an even harder place, as it attempts to expose the dark high school underbelly, a rape culture not often talked about, and society’s continued trend of glorifying athletes while turning a blind eye to unfathomable behavior.
The story revolves around Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), a misfit high-school kid looking to fit in with the popular, rich crowd at his new school where tuition runs a cool $20,000 — a sum his single mother can barely afford to pay. When he’s invited to the state-winning basketball team’s captain’s party, his perceived ticket to acceptance is quickly shredded to pieces when he’s supposedly drugged and sexually assaulted, with photos of his “drunken behavior” passed around. When school officials, including Dean Leslie Graham (returning player Felicity Huffman in a new role), get wind of the photos, they lead to Taylor’s suspension and an eventual confession that sets up the remainder of the season.
At the center of it all is Taylor’s mother Anne (Lili Taylor), a tormented character who is shackled with guilt over not being able to protect her son, but who is also consumed with rage towards the school officials who refuse to take her allegations more seriously. But while the mother is surely designed to evoke empathy and rage with audiences as she begins her uphill battle, the pilot is also careful not to expose exactly what went down at the party. Instead, it allows imaginations to fill in the gaps through fellow characters, including the mother of one of the accused (fellow returning player Regina King).
Although it certainly looks as though the members of the basketball team could be capable of such a dark deed (at one point a member jokes he’d “so wanna rape” a fellow student), the point of the series is to push viewer assumptions and prove that what is first presented isn’t always the truth. During one early scene the team’s coach (Timothy Hutton) is seen secretly filming a cheerleader dance, leading audiences to believe he’s a pedophile. Later, it’s revealed the coach is actually her father, and only took the video to share his daughter’s questionable behavior at school with her mother (Hope Davis).
Therein lies the success of an otherwise bleak and somewhat depressing series from creator John Ridley. Much like the first season the show relies on little background music to push the scenes or emotional moments forward, opting instead to let them linger heavily and sit there like a giant question mark. By the end of the first hour you’re not entirely sure what happened or who is to blame, but you’re left with an unsettling feeling that even when the truth does surface the story won’t be tied up with a neat little bow as it would be in so many other crime dramas on television.
Instead, if there is a satisfactory resolution involving actual justice (and we’re not led to believe there will be), the events will continue to weigh heavily on these lives long after the cameras have clicked off.
“American Crime” debuts Wednesday, Jan. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.