“That’s the truth people need to believe.”
Delivered with chilling certitude by Felicity Huffman in the final moments of American Crime’s most recent episode, the line provides another gasp-inducing conclusion similar to ones that have capped the three episodes aired thus far of the ABC limited series’ woefully underrated and underappreciated second season.
It’s a fun and frustrating exercise to parse the line and compare it to the iconic dialogue that is tantalizing viewers on The X-Files, a limited series that is plagued by the opposite issue endured by American Crime: overhype and excessive excitement.
“The truth is out there.” “I want to believe.” The truth in question here is about aliens and government conspiracies and a whole lot of other supernatural silliness.
What Huffman’s character, a prep school headmaster named Leslie, is referring to is more haunting than anything referred to on The X-Files. It’s not “out there.” It’s here. It’s in our neighborhoods, our homes, ourselves.
And it’s scary as hell.
After an award-winning first season that tackled race, religion, and injustice, John Ridley’s American Crime series is back with many of his same actors (Huffman, Emmy-winner Regina King, and Timothy Hutton return) but different characters, a different setting, a different crisis, and different lessons.
The potpourri of issues examined in Season 2—rape, homosexuality, race, privilege, economic disparity, bullying, the age of social media, the education system—are so plentiful and potent that they should emit some noxious scent of didacticism and patronizing finger-wagging when combined together.
Instead American Crime provokes and punishes, delicately prodding our ability for compassion and then harshly startling us into the realization of our own prejudices. It is the most explosive and most essential series airing on network television right now, with Wednesday night’s riveting fourth episode the crowning achievement of the first leg of its stellar second season.
So why aren’t more people talking about it?
We’re in a renaissance, of sorts, for the true-crime genre. Shows like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and the upcoming People vs. O.J. Simpson command our attention with a “you can’t make this up” real-world resonance. They’re the antidote to the glut of fantasy-horror-soap-epics that have otherwise dominated television.
There’s a scope, no doubt, to the breadth and ambition of American Crime, and a certain grandness to the power it commands, but it’s been flying under the radar when the questions it asks and the answers it can’t give you should be announcing the show as must-watch television.
Heck, it took a blizzard-induced house arrest to motivate a sampling of the show for this writer—who is now livid it took him this long to catch on.
Here’s the basic premise, if a storyline this layered and with this many tangents—each worth peeling away and traveling down, respectively—could be called basic.
After photos of Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), a student on financial aid at a pricey prep school, drunk and incoherent at a victory party for the basketball team, are shared and mocked online, he’s branded “WT” for white trash and suspended from school for violating its behavior code.
When Taylor, who had a history of being bullied at his school, tells his mother (Lili Taylor) that the photos were taken after he was drugged and sexually assaulted, she mounts a crusade—as best as she can with her means and intelligence—to make sure that the school tracks down the boys who are to blame.
Strong-armed by a schoolmaster, Leslie (Huffman), who doesn’t want to stir controversy that could destroy her students’ reputations, or, more importantly, her school’s, Taylor turns to the police, reporting her son’s rape.
A witch hunt ensues, with different parties as eager to cover their asses as they are to assign blame, deserved or not. Most alarming are the reactions to Taylor’s rape claims, expressions of disbelief falling on the spectrum from “he was asking for it” to “boys can’t be raped.” Taylor’s mother goes to the press in hopes of putting pressure on the school to do something about it.
When the paper names Kevin LaCroix (Trevor Jackson), the black co-captain of the basketball team, as a participant in the events of the party—Kevin is named because he is the only team member who is 18—the Internet’s pitchforks come for him. His co-captain Eric (Joey Pollari), who is white but from a much less wealthy family than Kevin’s, quickly becomes nervous that blame is about to fall on him, too… and that he might deserve it.
The slowly unraveling and increasingly entangled events reveal the institutional failings we have for people who claim they are raped—especially males—but also our naturalistic instincts to control the narrative in a moment of crisis. This all comes barreling forward with Thursday night’s bombshell episode.
Leslie’s attempts at damage control, desperately working to keep her school from appearing complicit in the scandal, are so calculated they come off as callous. At first she seems empathetic to Taylor when receiving the police report saying he was raped. Then she seems most interested in scapegoating. “We need to give the police a name,” she tells Timothy Hutton’s Coach Dan Sullivan. “Any name?” he asks.
As she sits at a table with the school’s board members debating a course of action—each member’s scoffs at the rape accusations more homophobic and appalling than the one before—she outlines her concerns, which have nothing to do with Taylor’s safety or well-being.
“So we should just hope that people believe the for-profit private institution didn’t conspire against the young man on financial aid, who was constantly bullied even before people found out he was apparently gay?” she says. “It’s naïve to think this school will get an objective hearing.”
The cynicism is appalling. And you can practically hear it happening at the private school in your neighborhood right now.
Kevin’s parents, played by Regina King and Andre L. Benjamin, are mostly concerned with maintaining their son’s innocence at whatever cost, spurning any plea by Eric’s father to defend their boys together, given the fact that the LaCroixs can afford a lawyer and he can’t.
“That boy will get the benefit of the doubt you won’t get,” Kevin’s mother tells him, when he says he wants to help Eric, too. Race, economic privilege, and the justice system—all packed into one line. She knows that her son will be painted guilty by a witch-hunting media because of his race if they don’t get in front of the situation quickly. Suddenly our culture of outrage and jury-by-blogger arrives, too.
There’s Coach Sullivan’s loyalty to his team, compounded by the indignation he and his wife (played by Hope Davis), who have a teenage daughter attending the prep school, share over the sexual promiscuity of these teenagers that might lead to the sort of sexual violence that is setting their community alight—particularly when it’s revealed that girls who attended the basketball party in question were expected to have sex with at least one of the team’s players. The ritual is called “Making the Team.”
Everything comes to a head, though, in the last act of Wednesday’s episode when, after attempting to commit suicide, Eric admits that he had sex with Taylor at the party, and has emails, texts, and Grindr conversations to prove that Taylor was meeting him consensually. The reason that he chose to attempt suicide rather than go to the police: He was afraid how people would react to finding out he’s gay.
When Taylor and his mother are confronted with Eric’s side of the story, Taylor—who wishes the entire controversy would all go away—must tell his mom that, though he arrived for consensual sex, that is not what happened… all the while coming out to her as gay for the first time.
Every turn of events is alternately heartbreaking and infuriating, kindling a rage fire because of how realistically everyone’s actions and, more importantly, reactions reflect our own behavior and world.
It takes deft writing to weave all these perspectives and issues into such a compelling tapestry. The directing, too, is so unusual and powerful. When characters are in conversation with a minor figure—Taylor and the woman conducting his rape kit and exam, for example—the camera stays centered on the main character, even when they aren’t speaking.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a show that provides a more dignified showcase for talented actresses over the age of 40 that the rest of Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what to do with. Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Hope Davis, and Lili Taylor—Taylor, delivering a performance that, if there’s anything to be said for taste, should win every acting award next year—all get to play, would you believe it, real people.
They are people who don’t cater to sympathy or likability, but who are selfish and motivated by the same things that motivate all of us: protecting ourselves and our interests, escaping blame, and sticking true to our own beliefs, no matter how myopic they might be. They operate under the limitations of our intelligence and empathy.
A lot of what they do is ugly. But it’s not, per se, wrong. They are not bad people, they are real people. They are real people who should remind us of ourselves, and that should make us uncomfortable.
And then there are the performances by Jessup, Jackson, and Pollari. These kids are broken. The system is broken. And it seems like nothing can be fixed.
This is a rave review of a show that, because of the scale of its ambition and the range of issues it attempts to confront, is certainly messy and flawed. That’s what makes it seem all the more human. That’s what makes it the truth.