I’ve been playing with a concept for a while called “eat your vegetables television.” This phrase represents TV that’s difficult to enjoyably watch but remains necessary viewing either because of its cultural value or importance to the pop culture landscape. One example of “eat your vegetables TV” is the first season of the HBO drama “The Leftovers,” which, while great, was slow in its pacing and therefore somewhat of a chore to watch. Going into the second season premiere, I was fully prepared to give “American Crime” a similar review based on what I saw of the first season, but my opinion changed when I pressed play. “American Crime” is deliberately tense, making sure the viewer is unsettled at every point possible in the episode. It’s incredibly tough to watch, but there are few better shows on network television.
The second season of “American Crime” follows a different story from the first season, one which is all too familiar if you’ve read the sports pages recently. In the first episode, Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup, “Falling Skies”), a scholarship student at a prestigious private school in Indiana, finds himself expelled from school after pictures of him looking drunk were taken at a basketball team party. When his mom Anne (Lili Taylor, “The Conjuring”) confronts him about it, he tells her members of the team drugged and sexually assaulted him at the party. After Anne brings the accusation to the school's headmistress (Felicity Huffman, “Desperate Housewives”), she and the basketball coach (Timothy Hutton, “Leverage”) have to deal with the implications of the accusation.
The story resonates particularly in the context of the accusations brought forth against athletes such as Jameis Winston and Greg Hardy, both currently playing in the NFL. The first episode takes a substantial amount of time to establish how important basketball is to this school and the people in its community. This program is as important to the school as football is to Florida State University (Winston’s alma mater). Touching on the accusation and the school’s lacking response, the hour suggests a future indictment against this type of sports culture, which sweeps actions like rape under the rug.
“American Crime” achieves a sense of claustrophobia and discomfort though its direction, expertly done by creator and writer John Ridley (who won an Oscar for his “12 Years a Slave” screenplay). Every shot appears to be deliberate, with the camera placement adding to the look and feel of a scene, especially in the second half of the episode. As the situation becomes clear and word starts to spread, the scenes are shot in intimate close-ups. For example, in the scenes where Anne talks to the headmistress, her emotion is strongly felt because it’s put right in front of you without anything in the way. Showcasing the sadness in this manner, it makes watching her pain even tougher and more gut-wrenching.
“American Crime” also has a huge ensemble whose performances brings additional gravitas. Hutton and Hoffman were nominated for Emmys for their performances in season one, and they do a good job as they’re asked to make you care about two new and highly unsympathetic characters (they’re failing to investigate a rape, after all). Who I’m most impressed by is Jessup, who didn’t show much range or ability at all on “Falling Skies” and actually seems genuine in his emotional turmoil as a rape survivior.
Yes, “American Crime” is not the easiest show, but if you’re not watching it, you really should be. No other series on the major networks is tackling a storyline about the intersection of crime and athletics with this much intelligence and gravity, and very few are this well put together by their cast and crew.