How American Crime’s School-Shooting Arc Came Together

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Photo: Ryan Green/ABC

Season two of American Crime is very much about differences. It portrays teens and adults living in and around Indianapolis, with disparate racial and economic backgrounds and sexual orientations, and demonstrates a range of talents and expectations for their future. Centrally, it tells the tragic tale of Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), a closeted gay teen from a working-class, single-parent home, who becomes embroiled in a sexual-assault controversy with one of his prep school’s star athletes. The community’s response — or lack thereof — in part triggers a chain reaction of choices and events that tragically culminate in Taylor’s shooting and killing another student.

Wednesday night’s episode, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss) and written by American Crime/House of Cards producer Keith Huff, confronted the fallout from what’s transpired and suggested that its characters are finally, belatedly compelled to find common ground rather than put what they don’t understand at a distance. Part and parcel, the show’s producers filmed interviews (conducted by Columbine author Dave Cullen) with Kiki, Paula, Sheryl, Violet, and Miah — all real-life victims of or witness to school shootings and/or bullying of LGBT youth. The conversations were woven into the episode’s narrative in an effort to reinforce American Crime’s verisimilitude and further encourage tolerance and advocacy from its viewers.

Prior to the episode airing, we spoke with Peirce and co–executive producer Michael J. McDonald about the decision to conduct the documentary-style interviews, this season’s structural arc, and walking the fine line between emotional storytelling and didacticism.

This year’s story turns on last week’s episode. Was there an early sense that season two would be a journey from events to repercussions to culmination, and then fallout and reconciliation?
Michael J. McDonald: What we loved about last season was there was this big penultimate episode at the end. Tragedy struck these families, and one of the things we talked about with the writers and with [co–executive producer] John [Ridley] was: Wouldn’t have it been wonderful to find out the journeys of these people after these tragic events? Part of [this season] was moving up the penultimate episode to episode seven, which was the violent ramification of this incident [coming] to a head with a shooting. At the same time, there’s exposure online brought on by the Richard Cabral character [Sebastian] of everyone’s secrets, and we wanted to then follow the fallout from both of those events, so that’s what [episodes] eight, nine, and ten truly are about: the unraveling of the secrets and the unraveling of these people when they’re exposed to a seminal event, but also to have their personal lives exposed through social media. It’s sort of a quid pro quo, in that Taylor’s life was exposed through social media. It all started with a picture. None of this would have come about if those kids hadn’t posted those pictures of him drunk on the floor. Because of all the actions of all those people, a boy ends up dead because they so vilified this young man in giving him a sense of hopelessness.

When you decided to build toward this shooting, was there a sense of that being accurate to how these incidents foment, or was it knowingly heightened a bit to get across the show’s themes?
McDonald: These events are happening. Yes, kids go on a rampage and kill a bunch of people — which we didn’t want to do — but there are these events you don’t hear about where one kid shoots another kid on the campus. There’s a lot of smaller things that happen that are kept quiet. These social-media things happen, and there are ramifications. Sometimes they end up in suicide. Sometimes they’re as simple as children and families moving away from towns, changing schools because of the bullying. A lot of them end up killing themselves or running away. You don’t come out of it being a target without some sort of damage. Our character takes some action, but it’s not a shooting spree. We’re not gonna make this how a traditional version of a television show would have pushed it to the nth degree. It’s more interesting to show the truth of what happens to these kids.

Kimberly Peirce: I always ground myself in what I call the status quo: Where we are at that point, what the character needs, and how we go about getting it. So if you look at the Tim Hutton and Felicity Huffman scene, they’re sparring. Really, you just have to remind them, “This is where it got to. These are stakes.” There was another important moment. We were alone with Felicity, and I was trying to figure out what we needed and said, “I think this woman who has been so kept together unravels.” She goes, “Give me a few minutes.” She came back, and she melted before our eyes. My editor said, “We didn’t know who that was,” which I thought was great. I wanted to get those variations within the episode.

Was it a conscientious decision to choose Kimberly as director and Keith Huff to write?
McDonald: Keith is a father of teenagers. We break out all the episodes on a big board, and he really gravitated toward telling the story of parents and children, and this particular episode. When John wrote episode seven, he really wanted Keith to write the fallout episode. And Kimberly is a very talented director who did a movie John and I both love, which was Boys Don’t Cry. It was a little bit of the luck of the draw that she ended up with this episode. We matched directors with writers we thought had similar things to say. We were big fans of Kim’s and what she’s done, and just felt like she had a strong voice. Kim has been at the forefront of telling stories about darker sides of our society that are overlooked. I think she’s very good at digging deeply into character. We felt like she was the right choice, but she was already chosen for this episode before the script was actually written.

Peirce: I signed on because of John, because I loved his work and I loved the show. You’re trusting both those things, but you have a show that reboots every year with a new crime. John had told me quite a lot about the characters and where it was going, but it’s a leap of faith. And then you get your script, and it’s so well-written. But yeah, you’re filling in this thing that you’ve anticipated. What was extraordinary for me was I didn’t quite know how big of an episode seven was going to be, so it was interesting to find out I was the aftermath of the shooting. It was thrilling to see that. Many people were causing the incidents in seven to happen, and then many people were affected, which I think is really great drama.

When did you make the decision to seek out real-life interviews?
McDonald: One of the things John and I pride ourselves on is pulling from reality and talking to people in every aspect of our shows. This year, we talked to coaches, gay athletes, we went to Indiana and met with the school boards, we met with private educators, we met with people who deal with social media within the schools, we met victims of shootings. We brought them to our writers, and our writers were so blown away by the reality, and out of the writers room came this idea of, in the aftermath it would be interesting to intersperse these interviews with real people who’ve lived through these events.

How did you handle those interviews?
Peirce: I’m a pure entertainer, in a way, insofar as I always want to service the story and the character, and when you think about putting in talking heads, you just have to think, Oh, is that going to advance our story line? And in some ways, you have to be on the ground and see it happen to know. We had a whole list of people we were interviewing. John and Michael gathered amazing people who had sadly lived through traumatic events, so we were interviewing people for an entire day. Even though in the script we had some what we called “dummy dialogue” — like, oh, we think it’s going to be this and this — we knew we would not know what the final interviews would be until we interviewed the real people, because we didn’t want to script what they were gonna say. We wanted to find out from them their experience and then cultivate the episode.

McDonald: We had a producer named Giovanni Jimenez in Texas who went out and found all those people, [and] hired Dave Cullen to do the interviews. A couple were very emotionally hard. Dave had a way to make people feel comfortable talking about the most painful moments of their lives. He sat behind the camera and did it more like a 20/20, Dateline-type interview.

Peirce: I had read [Columbine], and we were given a handout on who Dave was, and we knew who all these interviewees were, and that just made it really authentic and valuable, and the only way to do it. It was a really sad day, and what they said was profound.

One of the interviewees, Miah, referred to sexual-assault allegations leveled against her by school basketball teammates, but we didn’t get much more insight into the source or outcome of those allegations. Were they ultimately unfounded?
McDonald: Yes, there were some unfounded allegations of sexual harassment brought against her. Basically, the other teammates accused her of some sort of forced sexual assault on them. They were basically saying, “Oh, she’s making passes at us.” It wasn’t assault like rape. She was being accused of being a sexual predator on the team, and it was just a way to get her out when the truth was, these other girls were also lesbians and doing it in a defensive way so they could point the finger so no one looked at them. She was run out of the school. It was dealt with in the school, not criminally, and all the things were dropped. But that was after she lost her scholarships and tried to commit suicide.

Having watched it back, do you feel you guys successfully made a compelling episode without it feeling didactic?
McDonald: I’m immensely proud of what we did. I don’t want it to be didactic or for it to feel in any way that this is “an important issue.” This is not an after-school special. These events are part of life’s dramatic turns, and they are many times not portrayed because they’re just an episode in a crime show. We’re blessed that we get to explore the nuance and detail, to look at all the different things that can happen from an event that starts with some social media gone wrong, a sexual assault in a community culminating in a shooting. I don’t want it to be hard to watch. I want people to think and feel. If you can make somebody feel, that’s the greatest honor as a storyteller.

Peirce: As an entertainer, I’m always wondering, “Oh, is this going to make the experience of the episode deeper?” 'Cause that’s our desire. And I was amazed that it did, so I think the inclusion of the talking heads was brilliant because it brings up the reality of this incident we’re all living through. Had we not had it, it would have felt like a representation that didn’t really earn its intensity. If we touch people and move them, then what happens is they’re more sensitive when they go back out in the world. By sensitizing and deepening the emotional experience and bringing it to surface, that’s where change can happen.