The second season of ABC's American Crime starts off with a demonstration of both the benefits and the limitations of the anthology series format.
American CrimeAirtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 1
Air date: 2016-01-06
As part of an anthology series -- a continuing trend in American television -- American Crime’s second season poses an interesting challenge for creator John Ridley. After a successful first season centered around a complicated drug-related homicide met with modest acclaim from audiences and critics alike, the cast and crew are yet again forced through the gauntlet of proving the show’s worth with a new story, new characters, and a new thematic focus. It’s the curious nature of the anthology format, something that True Detective and American Horror Story have specifically had to reckon with more recently: leaving behind something people enjoy for the uncertainty of change. In the case of those two shows, it’s proven a dangerous line to walk.
Luckily, for American Crime, a primetime major network crime drama, it doesn’t take much to set itself apart from its competition.
Most crime shows involve themselves in the procedure of policing, the processes of establishing and maintaining law and order, and the mechanisms through which governments execute their authority on civilians -- a somewhat detached, practical approach that mostly sidesteps the inherent passion and human drama involved in such stories. American Crime’s unique in that it targets the effects of criminal activity on human institutions, on community structures, and on actual interpersonal relationships. It organizes itself first and foremost around American families and friendships; it even avoids depicting police work altogether. The ensemble casts for both seasons are made up of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, co-workers, best friends, and rivals; the intricate, pragmatic networks that compose police organizations is incompatible with such narratives, so it’s left out completely.
The first episode of this second season reintroduces viewers to this dynamic through a slate of slightly tweaked stock characters, led once again by Timothy Hutton -- this time in the role of a beloved high school basketball coach -- and Felicity Huffman -- now playing the headmaster of the same school. Through a complicated weave of high school drama, institutional politics, and various family dynamics, episode one methodically lays out the basis for this season’s narrative focus: the alleged rape of a lower-middle-class male student (Connor Jessup) at the hands of one of the players from the school’s prestigious basketball squad. Clearly, the show’s penchant for both controversial subject matter (adolescent male rape) and complex thematic networks (classism, institutional bias toward money, dog-whistle coding, etc.) are both at least as present in this season’s first episode as they were at any point previously.
Of course, comparisons to the show’s first season are already hard to avoid. Given last year’s focus on a crime with an absurdly broad scope -- involving everything from drugs to homicide to sexual assault to robbery -- this season’s more honed-in case seems a little more small-scale. Sexual assault with a male victim is also not a topic that’s often seriously explored on major network dramas, and certainly not to the extent that drug dealing or murder’s so frequently portrayed. On the other hand, it already seems to lack the multi-faceted mystery of the first season, which saw the involvement of a wide swath of characters -- from the victims’ families to the girlfriend of the man accused of the crime to the father and sister of the boy who unknowingly aided the criminals -- in favor of a tighter narrative. Reservations about this shift in approach are understandable; if the story lacks some of the nuance that characterized the first season of American Crime, it would no longer separate itself from the dozens of similarly themed shows on primetime television every day in the way it had to early on. With its relatively smaller scale, it may not even be enough to fill a whole season.
Unfortunately, this is the curse of anthology television. In its first episode, season two of American Crime maintains its commitment to shedding light on the subtle and difficult issues of race, class, and sex in modern society, but it remains to be seen if it will continue these successes. This episode presents a compelling start, but one that could nonetheless easily devolve into crime drama conventions and conveniences.