By David Goldberg
You may be confused by three similarly titled anthology series racking up attention now: American Crime Story, American Horror Story, and American Crime. The first features Sarah Paulson in a Marcia Clark wig, the second features Sarah Paulson in a Betsey Johnson wig, and the third . . . doesn’t really do wigs.
While ACS and AHS sparkle with the camp gaudiness we’ve come to expect from a Ryan Murphy bonanza, American Crime is a brittle, tough drama from John Ridley, who wrote and produced 12 Years a Slave. And though Ridley is clearly the best equipped to handle touchy issues on television, he could learn a lesson or two from Murphy about lightening the mood.
This season centers on a private Chicago high school in the weeks following the alleged rape of a male teenager by members of the school’s beloved basketball team. At first, the show seems like a straightforward drama that picks up on the alarming prominence of athletics-related sexual-assault scandals. But with each episode, Ridley subverts expectations for his characters. The male victim of the rape isn’t repressed because of his sexuality, but because of his class; his mother is a waitress, and his status as a financial-aid recipient makes him an easy target in the school’s ruthless cover-up. His assailant, the white team captain, cleaves to the team’s elite status to hide his own homosexuality. His co-captain, the team’s most visible black player, is too sheltered by his affluence to handle the racist implications of the investigation.
Ridley doesn’t force his audience to feel sorry for any of his characters on account on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, making even the most liberal viewers question their assumptions about whom they choose to root for. Free of clichéd material and given the chance to be ugly, the show’s ensemble can take swings and be unlikeable. At the start, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor), the victim’s mother, seems like an embattled, underprivileged outsider, but proves herself to be dead-set on revenge, even at the cost of her son’s well-being. On the other side of the battle, Terri LaCroix (Regina King), the team captain’s mother, resorts to near-paranoia and ruthless aggression to protect her son from the investigation.
This is a bleak world to inhabit, but thanks to a powerhouse ensemble that includes Felicity Huffman, Andre 3000, and the supreme aforementioned King, Ridley’s brutal message hits with an impact that intensifies every week. Some of the political monologues would come off as mere finger-wagging on another series, but when Regina King talks about race, you’re going to pay attention. Unfortunately, the teenage actors seem overwhelmed by the subject matter; most of them just seem to weep through their script pages.
American Crime isn’t exactly a joy to watch, and the overreliance on invasive camera work, clammy dialogue, and pretentious editing doesn’t make it easy to digest. That Ridley can push boundaries with sensitive issues should come as no surprise, but as the veteran behind a range of titles (including Undercover Brother, the upcoming Ben-Hur remake, and even an episode or two of Justice League), he could have used his varied genre experiences to challenge the conventions of dramatic storytelling to keep American Crime from sinking into its own self-serious grimness.
Can a show about race, violence, and societal oppression be funny, absurd, or outrageous, and still be considered “important”? Even though American Horror Story and American Crime Story often reduce serious issues to offensive levels of silliness, they at least start with positive intentions: to exorcise stigma, challenge taboo, and expose the invisible—without losing entertainment value. American Crime has the bona fides, the cast, and the Emmys to push the boundaries of social dialogue on broadcast television. Perhaps it should learn to do it with a smile.