Despite slow plot advancement, the second season of American Crime continues to provoke interest with compelling character moments and broad thematic considerations.
American CrimeAirtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 2
Air date: 2016-01-13
After a cliffhanger ending in episode one, both high school student and sexual assault victim Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) and his mother Anne (Lili Taylor) begin episode two mired in the mundanities of police and medical procedure -- giving statements, taking tests, and generally just incrementally distancing themselves from the rape through the banalities of routine. True to real life, the drama in their story is inconsistent; one minute Anne’s tearfully reporting the rape over 911 or shouting down the school officials who won’t take her son’s story seriously, the next she’s quietly waiting for advice at the doctor’s office. Jessup’s shaky, nervous demeanor and faltering voice underscore Taylor’s uncomfortable response to the rigid calculation of medical work that fails to assuage any of the complexities of the mixed feelings -- anxiety, fear, humiliation -- he’s bottled up. In a moment of sheer frustration with the cold emotionlessness of procedure, he tears up a medical brochure in the hospital waiting room. He needs an outlet for the intense passion caged inside of him, but he isn’t given one.
These are the most important moments of the season so far, because they again illustrate the show’s dedication to exploring the human side of crime. Police procedurals and medical dramas may be well-worn territory in American television, but more often than not they simply focus their attention on adept professionals -- surgeons, detectives, forensic investigators -- pulling extraordinary victories from dismal odds. American Crime, in contrast, is compulsive in its attempts to explore the psyches of normal people in aggressively exceptional situations, hoping to reveal some greater truth about the way we as a culture deal with violence and criminality in our lives.
A substantial part of this is showing characters at their least favorable, giving a way for the audience to unravel their prejudices and biases. Episode two offers us a deeper look at Terri LaCroix (Regina King), the overbearing mother of high school basketball star Kevin (Trevor Jackson), on this front. In episode one, Terri casts judgment on Kevin’s new girlfriend for unclear reasons; in episode two, she feels free to expose her own discriminatory beliefs in a misguided lecture about the role socioeconomic class plays into relationships, making it clear that she simply doesn’t trust girls of lower class with her rich and talented son. She tells Kevin to get back the expensive gift he bought for the girl, who, she assumes, is only taking advantage of him. In the brief scene following this encounter, Kevin takes back the gift and is promptly slapped in response. Of course, the girl looks genuinely hurt, and not in the way that Terri might expect.
Terri’s confused ideas about class are portrayed as having no practical application in her son’s life; instead of allowing Kevin to sort out the complexities of romance on his own, Terri has offered him a black-and-white filter through which to judge people (“If her family has money, then she doesn’t want anything from you. But these other girls . . . those are straight hoes”), and it’s already proven insubstantial. As a statement on classism, it’s a little unsubtle, but it reveals an interesting dynamic at play in the show and in real life about the way we expose our own prejudices: bigoted statements about race are often more coded in public spaces, where people are more subject to scrutiny, while people are often much more open and careless with their class-based prejudices.
Kevin’s story extends thematically throughout the episode as a whole, which makes a point to show further dividing lines between the rich and the poor within this community. During a contentious city council meeting, an impassioned collection of average citizens express their anger at the city’s commitment to growing and aiding the private school (“It’s nothing but a bunch of rich spoiled kids! It’s a segregation academy,” one speaker laments) while the public needs of everyone else are neglected. In a board meeting, one of the school officials calls the people “idiots” in response.
This season is very clearly setting up a class conflict, one which will certainly boil over once the news of a reported rape kept quiet by the private school’s headmaster inevitably goes public. In fact, this background rising action’s one of the only things keeping the show moving. Episode one laid the groundwork for what appeared to be a much thinner story than what was offered in season one. In this second episode, the main plot indeed seems to be moving at a snail’s pace, but these scenes of character moments and world building manage to keep the show from resting at a standstill. Granted, one of the frustrating things about American Crime is that you can never be sure whether certain events are building to an actually profound reflection on the American social consciousness or whether they amount simply to a shallow game of devil’s advocate in which everyone has their reasons and no one is ever just right or wrong. So far, season two has laid out the pieces of the puzzle nicely; it’s fitting them together to reveal the big picture that might expose some problems.