As the second season's story finally gets moving, the complicated makeup of American Crime's architecture reveals its good and bad spots.
American CrimeAirtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 3
Air date: 2016-01-20
For a show that deals with as many issues and follows as many unique characters as American Crime, it’s not exactly surprising when some pretty important things -- plot threads, thematic throughlines, character arcs -- get a little disheveled. Episode three is where every dimension of this messiness really separates from the grasp of the writers' control, both in good and bad ways. The pacing of certain plotlines becomes disassociated from that of others, creating unbalanced narratives; the side effects of battling too many thematic issues at once begins to take its toll as some issues get heartier treatment than others; given longer looks at characters, some of their actions start to seem atypical, awkward, or unfitting. At the same time, some characters begin to feel more authentic in their complications, and at the intersection of all of their biases and prejudices and cultural values, the weave of the story begins to feel that much tighter. In season two of American Crime, chaos has finally begun to take hold just a little bit, for better and worse.
In some ways, this doesn’t apply to the overarching narrative, which gets a substantial kickstart in episode three as news of a possible sexual assault between students at the private school breaks publicly through the local news. This episode’s all about the fallout: parents of students at the school overreact, the kids gossip and share their fears, and the mother of the rape victim tells the reporter how she got it all wrong. For the first time this season, the story actually feels broadly realized. Each character filters the news through their own personal responsibilities, relationship to the school, and social location; it’s a conversation between many distant prejudices.
But it also highlights another issue with American Crime: its failure to maintain thematic focus.
Episode two gave us a harsh look at the way that classism operates in wealthier communities, but in the third episode, the commentary on socioeconomic status is once again pushed into the background while new issues -- specifically concerning gender and the role of the press -- take the spotlight. The show can’t be all things a crime drama can within the span of one episode, so it delegates certain issues to explore here and there, not fully analyzing them, and even doing a disservice to many of them in the process. In the end, these informally structured "issue-oriented" episodes feels cheesy and artificial, fully characteristic of the prime-time network drama label that American Crime seems so eager to jettison.
It also negatively affects the very foundation of how many of the characters are portrayed. Despite all the pains the writers go through in order to show the good and bad in all people, what we’re really left with at the end of the third episode is a collection of -- at best -- mildly unlikeable characters.
The characterization of Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari), a struggling basketball player with separated parents, has been particularly disorienting. In episode one, during a locker room chat with his friends, he makes an off-hand remark about raping a female student; in a conversation with his dad, he says he doesn’t wear deodorant because he doesn’t want to smell "like a bitch"; in episode three, his mother mentions that he’s prone to swearing and using sexist language when on the phone with friends. His behavior is so cartoonishly vile, yet at the same time we’re supposed to care about him: he has secret romantic rendezvous with other men, struggles to perform on the basketball team, and in private discussions with his little brother, he seems genuinely compassionate. Back to back, these scenes just don’t add up. Perhaps we’re supposed to see his anger and petulant attitude as a product of his sexual confusion and broken family, and that really he’s a sweet guy underneath the front he puts up to make himself seem more masculine -- a pretty shallow characterization either way. On the other hand, it’s essentially impossible to sympathize with the guy on any meaningful level because he’s always whining or putting someone else down. In a show that seemingly avoids having straightforward villains, Eric threatens to suck every degree of dynamism out of his side of the narrative.
This is where the writers’ commitment to showing both sides of every story fail: it only makes us frustrated with the seemingly good people, and makes the nasty people seem worse. In episode three, Michael LaCroix (André Benjamin), previously shown to be a considerate and understanding father to basketball star Kevin (Trevor Jackson), finally snaps when he hears there may have been a rape at the party his son hosted. He storms into Kevin’s room and violently grabs him, demanding to know what happened. It intentionally upsets our vision of him as the cool-headed and empathetic father the writers themselves set up early in the first episode. Then there’s headmaster Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman), who’s only progressed to become more one-dimensional over time. In episode three, she hits a new low by outright blaming the victim of the rape, telling a reporter the real question that needs to be asked is why he was out drinking that night in the first place. Any nuance the character once had is lost in that moment. These character flaws are written in under the guise of being realistic, a testament to the multi-dimensionality of the human psyche (nobody’s perfect, after all), but too often they don’t even ring true. It ends up feeling more like the writers covering the bases, creating an illusion of verisimilitude that instead negatively impacts the coherence of the show’s ensemble.
And it only makes sense these frustrations would come to light in the third episode, when the plot finally kicks into gear and characters slowly begin to show their hands. Even with a simpler, smaller scale story this season, the interaction between disparate characters and broad-minded themes is getting messy. The inevitable dissonance between a story based an isolated crime in a modest community and the show’s sweeping approach is revealing itself early this season. If nothing else, episode three shows the sheer difficulty in constructing a crime drama that’s simultaneously realistic and engaging -- especially for a major network.