There isn’t much TV that I watch consistently. In fact, I haven’t checked out any of the new shows that have debuted as this new season starts. But I am looking forward to the January-February mid-season interim when American Crime will be back for a third season. The decision to go ahead with a third season was made back in May, but I only learned of it a few weeks ago … and recently heard the third season will be based on an actual crime that has a Minnesota link.
American Crime has been a favorite among critics in both of its seasons (so far) and has garnered multiple nominations for Emmys in each of them. It was expected, but still disappointing, that at the 2016 Emmy Awards back in September HBO’s similarly named series based on the OJ Simpson trial of 1994 walked away with all the awards for limited series – except for Best Supporting Actress, which went to American Crime’s Regina King for a second year in a row. In all fairness, the OJ story was a riveting spectacle that played out in real time on TV as the actual events unfolded. Undoubtedly, the dramatized retrospective was even better, having been tailored specifically for a TV audience. The slew of awards for HBO’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story certainly added some much needed diversity to the parade of winners. But for an exploration of crime, the impacts on all involved, and the question of what is justice, nothing tops American Crime. This is TV that will make you feel and make you think.
This is not yet-another police procedural, neither a whodunit nor a how-catch-em, focused on the work of clever detectives. It’s not a courtroom drama where persuasive attorneys force the truth to come out through gripping testimony or well-written arguments. The police, detectives, lawyers (whether prosecutors or defenders) are bit parts in this series. Instead, what has unfolded in each of the two seasons is a deep dive into the impacts of a crime on the victims, on the accused, on their families and the community. The stories press the question “What is justice in this situation?” but never offer any easy answers.
The first season revolved around the murder of a husband and the violent assault on his wife. She had been left in critical condition, but although she did ultimately survive, she was unable to provide any information about the attack that killed her husband and nearly killed her. The groups of suspects connected to the crime included two Hispanic males (one only a teen), a black male, and a white female. Suspicion quickly focused on the sole black male (Carter, played by Elvis Nolasco). Rather than consider the role that her son’s drug dealing might have played in his death, the victim’s mother, Barb (played by Felicity Huffman), kept pressing to have the event considered a hate crime, arguing that her son was killed and her daughter-in-law was attacked because they were white. We never did learn for certain who did the killing, although we certainly saw Aubry (played by Caitlin Gerard), the white girlfriend of prime suspect Carter, become violent when her boyfriend was threatened. Near the end of the story, she confessed to the killing in order to spare her beloved Carter. That may have been the truth, but there was never any definitive statement within the storytelling that the truth was out at last. In the very end, Aubry killed herself in the state mental health facility where she’d been sentenced in her plea deal … after learning that her beloved Carter was dead … having been shot by the distraught father of the victim (Timothy Hutton) … who then killed himself, having reached the limits of his own abilities to cope with what had happened and having no support for rebuilding his life. The other characters were left with somewhat lesser levels of upheaval and devastation … and only a few had some small hope for a better future.
This past season, the crime story was even more complicated and the questions about what would be justice for those involved were even harder to answer ….
From the opening sequence in the gym of Leland High School, a fictional tony private school in Indianapolis (capitol city of the basketball-crazed state of Indiana), it’s clear there’s something about Eric (played by Joey Pollari) as we watch him very hesitantly place his hand on the back of teammate and co-captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) as they work on Eric’s defense under the watchful eye of Coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton). The basketball team is practicing … and so are the cheerleaders. A few students are sitting in the bleachers watching the goings-on. Among them is a student named Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), who is scrolling through his Facebook feed on his phone. We are given glimpses of the pictures and comments but not enough to be certain what exactly has been posted. A flashback reveals Taylor is a charity case at the school, a capable student who could go onto college (meaning great things) if he’d apply himself a bit more in his classes. But then we discover Taylor is being expelled. He only tells his mom, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor), that he wants to go back to his previous public school – but not why. She finds out he’s been expelled for behaviors that violate the school conduct policy – but not what the behaviors were. In desperation, Anne meets with Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy (Angelique Rivers), who reluctantly shows her the pictures on social media of an obviously intoxicated Taylor at a party … pictures that show evidence of vomiting, complete loss of self-control, possibly taken while Taylor was barely conscious or even unconscious. Evy was at the party with Taylor, but she and Taylor were soon separated for some time. Although she isn’t sure exactly what happened to Taylor, she is certain “somebody messed with him” … a certainty Taylor also expresses when his mom confronts him about what she’s seen. Armed with this knowledge, Anne returns to the school to meet again with the director, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman). At this meeting, Anne states that her son was raped at the basketball team’s Captains’ Party. Leslie takes notes as Anne talks and then asks her to sign the last page under a hand-written statement that Anne is agreeing to abide by the school’s disciplinary policy and will seek no further action. Leslie then talks to Dan, urging him “to have a talk” with his team. The coach is reluctant, but he mentions what he’s been told at the end of the team meeting and invites anyone who knows what happened to come tell him. No one does (of course). When Anne checks back with Leslie and learns that it’s been handled as far as the school is concerned, she calls 911 to report the rape of her son Taylor.
The first season started with the immediate aftermath of the crime. So does the second, but it takes the whole first episode for the crime to be revealed. What follows is the usual intricacies of investigating and trying to prove sexual assault (something we’ve seen played out in real life and dramas many times over) with the added complications that significant time has passed since the assault and that the situation involves two males … and how deep does anyone really want to dig when money, power, and the popularity of championship sports team are involved? A number of people try to do the right things, like Anne, Evy, the investigators, Taylor’s counselor. Others are mostly trying to look out for themselves … Kevin’s parents (a wealthy Black couple played by Regina King and Andre L. Benjamin), Leslie, Dan, the rest of the team and others connected with the school.
What comes to light is messy. The assault happened at the Captains’ Party, an annual tradition for the basketball team that involves alcohol, drugs, and team members “making the team” by having sex at the party. Co-captain Eric invited Taylor to the party for the purpose of having sex. Prior to the party, he and Taylor exchanged text messages discussing sexual activity. But does flirtatious texting beforehand constitute consent in the actual moment? Although Taylor willingly accepted a beer at the party, it’s clear the beer he was given contained some kind of drug. Does the fact he was drugged negate any consent he might have given previously (if the use of alcohol alone weren’t enough to remove the possibility of consent)?
As for Eric, Taylor’s accused rapist, his situation is just as complicated. No one on the team knew Eric was gay until it became clear he was the one Taylor was accusing. As everything becomes public, Eric attempts suicide. The revelation of Eric’s homosexuality leads to increased turmoil in Eric’s already fragile family and increased tensions within the larger community as Leslie attempts to use Eric to demonstrate the school’s commitment to inclusivity. Ultimately the disclosure leads to direct insults at the next basketball game from the opposing team and its fans, a game that ends in a loss for the Leland Knights, the regular state champs.
While Eric and Taylor struggle in their separate ways to cope with what happened, the incident sets off ripples throughout the community. Kevin is the only team member of legal age, so he’s the only one who can be named in reports. His parents, Terri (a high-powered management level professional) and Michael (an architect), have the money to hire a good attorney who’s able to offer competent advice. They also have a friend in the police department who is able to provide them with advanced warnings as the investigation proceeds. Eric’s dad asks them to help for his son as well, but they refuse. Leslie frets about the potential impacts of the crime on the school’s upcoming fundraising gala. Dan tries to hold the team together at the school while balancing tensions in his own home between his worrisome teenage daughter (one of the cheerleaders) and his pot-addled wife who punts all the heavy-lifting of parenting onto him. Eric’s brother attends the same public school that Taylor returns to where the embattled principal, Chris (Elvis Nolasco), is trying to navigate tensions that pit one ethnic group’s interest against another for the limited resources available to the school. These conflicts are brought to a boiling point around a situation that involves Evy. Only late in the story do we learn that Evy was touched in a sexual way by a student at the school – igniting tensions between her circle of friends and the guy who touched her. It’s a secret she keeps for most of the story … adding insight to Taylor’s reluctance to disclose what happened to him.
After having been rejected by Evy when his sexual orientation is exposed, Taylor reunites with his first boyfriend once he’s back at the public school. He’s seeing a counselor, but he isn’t cooperating with his counselor or working towards healing. Mostly, he just wants to clear the air with Eric and move on with his own life. After the basketball game at which insults directed at Eric are hurled at the whole team, Kevin shoots off his mouth with some of his teammates, characterizing Taylor as a bitch who needs to be taught a lesson. The other teammates convince Eric to text Taylor, asking to meet him at a playground. Eager to finally be able to talk to Eric, Taylor goes to the playground and is badly beaten by several members of the basketball team.
We wish Taylor would go to the police with what happened … or at least tell his mom … or confide in his counselor … or even just try to follow his counselor’s guidance. But instead he hides out with his boyfriend, not wanting to be seen until his bruises are gone.
Throughout the story, Eric engages in hook-ups with guys who drive hot cars, exchanging sexual favors for some time in a car he’d like to have. As happens in real life, people misrepresent themselves on hook-up apps and one such hook-up turns out to be a dad with a minivan. Their encounter quickly turns violent and Eric has to fight his way out of the minivan. He’s badly shaken and we never learn what condition he left the other man in.
Things turn even worse for everyone when Taylor, partially recovered from his beating, steals a gun from the family friends who have been like foster parents to him … buys some drugs from the coach’s daughter (marijuana and pain killers she’s stolen from her mother’s stash) … and concludes that the solution to his situation is to kill Leslie. He goes to the school, but she’s out of the office, giving a speech at a conference. Finally, after some consoling words from the secretary, Taylor decides to leave. As he makes his way across campus, he encounters one of the basketball players who assaulted him at the playground. The player gets in Taylor’s face and yells “Didn’t I tell you if you ever showed your face around here again, I’d kill you?” To everyone’s surprise, Taylor pulls the gun from his jacket pocket and shoots the other student. He dies … and now Taylor is facing murder charges.
As the series winds to a close, Taylor is preparing to accept a plea deal instead of pursuing a defense strategy that would emphasize his trauma in a plea of self-defense. Eric, after having been confronted by his dad about the “dates” he goes on, is preparing to hook up with yet another guy in a hot car. Does Taylor take the plea deal? Does Eric get in the car? We’re left with those questions … along with the question of what would truly be justice in this situation
What would truly help Taylor find healing and peace after what has been done to him: the assaults (physical and sexual), the betrayals by people he was supposed to trust, the unjust expulsion? He is a good kid to whom a number of terrible things have happened. What will help him back on the path he was brutally knocked off of? What will give him hope and open the door to a good future?
And what is justice for Eric? Luring Taylor to the party and ensuring his compliance with drugged beer was cruel … so was rejecting Taylor afterwards, claiming embarrassment by how Taylor was acting under the influence, embarrassment from the photos of that episode posted on social media. But Eric has his own torments and problems, starting with rejection and condemnation from his parents … and then the public shaming from others in the community. Where can Eric find love and acceptance and help navigating the transition to manhood as a gay man?
And what are the roles of the adults in this? The Captains’ Party is an established tradition for the basketball team. Surely the coach must know something about the event and the goings-on. The school director is also turning a blind eye because a winning coach who brings home championship banners also helps bring in the donations her school needs. Money protects Kevin and his parents to some degree … but in the end Terri’s bosses at the firm find the lengths she went to in order to protect her son embarrassing and she’s offered a lateral move to a different city or an exit package … suggesting that race ultimately trumps money nearly every time.
Money, race, class, privilege … who is valued for what and who is overlooked … who matters and who doesn’t … all these currents swirl though the stories of American Crime and add complexity to the question of just what is justice in these situations for all involved. The open-ended conclusions of the stories with no hint of closure drive the question home. Producer and writer John Ridley (with help from a pool of talent) demonstrates that his Oscar for writing Twelve Years a Slave was no fluke.
This season, Emmy nods went to Lili Taylor as Anne, Felicity Huffman as Leslie, and Regina King as Terri (the second time in a row for the latter two … and Ms. King has won the Emmy both years). Timothy Hutton is as excellent as he has been since his Oscar-winning debut decades ago in Ordinary People. But overlooked in the nominations were the outstanding performances by Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari as the characters at the heart of this drama. Both delivered powerful, gusty, unflinching performances in very difficult roles neither of which were truly hero or villain.
Completely overlooked in reviews and awards for this second season were the choreographer and dancers. Several scenes in early episodes were set around the high school’s dance company rehearsing for a performance at the fundraiser gala where the piece was performed in its entirety. The dance number was an exploration of humanity, sexuality, power, and consent that offered wordless commentary on the story in a highly effective way.
If you missed the first seasons of American Crime, spend some time catching up — and be watching come January!