The first season of Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley’s thought-provoking ABC drama “American Crime” was one of last year’s best shows, mainly for its willingness to go there — to confront, in narrative form, some of society’s touchiest subjects. Set in Modesto, Calif., it was about the aftermath of a home-invasion murder and the list of systematic injustices that followed as the case worked its way to arrests and court dates.
Although the dialogue sometimes verged on screed, it’s hard to think of a current scripted series that has more skillfully portrayed our knee-jerk
instinct for outrage in these times. “American Crime” came on strong with an intent to undermine its audience’s deeply held prejudices. Fixated on the experience of racism and other forms of discrimination, “American Crime” was just as interested in the complexities of the racist potential within each of us. It’s rare to see a TV show successfully navigate all the gray that exists between black and white, and it’s rarer still for that same show to be so unflinchingly good on the terrible subject of grief.
Because “American Crime” is an anthology series (which means it introduces a new story and new characters each season), viewers might expect Ridley and his repertory players — including Regina King, who won an Emmy for last season’s performance — to head deeper into a from-the-headlines fictional scenario of, say, race and police shootings.
Instead, “American Crime” (which returns Wednesday night) has chosen a more nuanced and uncomfortable story to tell, this time about a rape scandal involving a varsity boys’ basketball team at Leland, a private high school in Indianapolis. Ridley quickly introduces several trigger points at once about class, teen sexuality and race (the story quickly involves a nearby public high school, typically overcrowded and budget-strapped) and about the devastating speed with which social media apps can turn rumor into fact.
Felicity Huffman returns, this time as Leslie Graham, Leland School’s headmaster, whose life and work is a guarded regimen of precise words and effective public relations. As she’s about to launch a crucial fundraising campaign, a flurry of texted pictures emerge of a male Leland student, Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), who appears drunk, unconscious and in various states of degradation. (The show is coy about letting viewers have a good look at the pictures for ourselves.)
After suspending Taylor for being drunk, Leslie then has to confront Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton), the basketball team’s head coach, with news that the pictures were taken at an unsupervised house party hosted by the team’s co-captain (played by Trevor Jackson).
Leery of suspending the co-captain, who is African American and whose parents (King plays his mother) are wealthy supporters of the school, Leslie and Dan instead decide to quietly bench the team’s other captain (Joey Pollari), whose parents have just split up amid financial problems.
Lili Taylor, in a much larger role than she had last season, plays Taylor’s mother, Anne Blaine, who works as a restaurant manager and sent her son to Leland at great personal cost. Horrified at the pictures, angered at her son’s suspension and determined to get Taylor to tell her what happened, Anne concludes that her son was raped. Unsatisfied with the headmaster’s measured wait-and-see response, Mom files a police report, which launches an investigation (and a rape exam for Taylor). She also contacts a local reporter and, from there, it’s a wildfire. Taylor transfers back to Thurgood Marshall High School, where an overworked principal (Elvis Nolasco, who played “American Crime’s” prime suspect last season) is dealing with an entirely different set of explosive concerns in a school that is racially mixed.
In a way that more sharply distinguishes the show from its peers, “American Crime” has a surer hand in portraying teenagers and certain aspects of their lives, especially in the hothouse context of private schools and success-obsessed parents and teachers.
We’ve become so accustomed to TV’s melodramatic use of what I call “Trouble Teens” (the ur-example going back to Kim Bauer on “24” and the most egregious examples lately being Dana Brody on “Homeland,” Whitney Solloway on “The Affair” and just about any disobedient teen in a zombie-apocalypse setting) that there’s something almost revolutionary about the complex and utterly human teenagers that Ridley has conceived here and that his young actors bring to life. This season will get right under the skin of parents who worry too much, or not enough, about their kids.
As with Season 1, “American Crime’s” only real problem (and, I would argue, its greatest strength) is its intensity, which at moments can lead to a scene or two in which a character lapses into righteous monologue. Yet, even there, “American Crime” is holding up a mirror to who we are: Think of how many times a day you’re exposed to adamant opinions, exclamation points and arguments through your news feed. This is all sobering,
premium-cable-level subject matter that’s been inserted into a soapy “Nashville” and Shonda Rhimes-style broadcast space, which means some viewers may find “American Crime” too depressing to count as prime-time entertainment.
That’s their loss.
American Crime (one hour) returns Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.