American Crime Makes Us Confront How We Judge Other People

L-R: Regina King and Trevor Jackson. Photo: Ryan Green/ABC

John Ridley’s potboiler American Crime, which ended its second season Wednesday night, doesn’t get as much media coverage as some other so-called “prestige” series because it’s not fun. It offers few (and mostly grim) jokes, no slapstick scenes or fourth wall-breaking asides, no banter, no gunfights or chases, and almost nothing in the way of onscreen sex — and the offscreen sex tends to be nonconsensual or otherwise unpleasant. It refuses to give us easy answers. Sometimes it won’t even give answers, period.

The second season showed how an athletic scandal at a private school tore apart its immediate community and inflicted collateral damage on a nearby public school. It wrapped up with a long, almost silent scene of a tormented and self-destructive gay basketball player standing on a road contemplating whether to advance toward a vehicle he’d just flagged down. It ended without definitively establishing who leaked the medical records of Taylor’s mother, Anne. Taylor is asked to stand up in court and say how he pleads, but the show cuts away before we can hear his answer. And we all had to decide to be alright with this not-knowing, and decide not to resent the show as it gradually worked its way through ten densely plotted episodes, taking every opportunity to pull the sympathy rug out from under us.

TV has evolved a lot in the last 20 years, but it’s still rare to see a commercial-network show as rigorously conceived and executed as this one. There’s a temptation to read TV series through an auteurist lens just because a showrunner has a big personality, even when the program is nothing to crow about in terms of picture, sound, and overall aesthetic. That’s not the case here. Ridley, whose screenwriting credits include U-Turn and 12 Years a Slave, has thought about how every cinematic choice expresses and fortifies what he’s trying to explore.

Whole scenes might play out with very subtle camera movements, or none. Sometimes we’ll get through most of a conversation or interrogation without seeing the face of the other character who’s talking. The style seems rather devious when you think about how it takes tight close-ups of faces — Hollywood’s preferred method of forcing identification with a character — and imbues them with doubt and irony. American Crime will often pick one character in an exchange and bore down very tightly on their emotional experience of a moment, but often your identification with that character will be contradicted by their dialogue or by the dialogue of whatever character they’re speaking with. You feel torn as you watch the scene. You don’t know how to feel, because unlike most television, and most cinema, American Crime is not telling you how to feel. Instead, it’s asking you to look and listen.

If a lot of prestige TV can be described as arthouse cinema for the small screen, Ridley and his writers and directors and actors are not working in TarantinoCoen BrothersKubrick mode (the mode of Mr. Robot, Fargo, and other closely watched dramas) but in the stoic, at times self-flagellating vein of Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and the Dardenne brothers (The Son). The result has an odd feel, somewhere between psychoanalysis and liturgy. This show is not light, it’s not sweet. It’s heavy, it’s dark, it can be frustrating sometimes, and if you’re not willing to lean into it, you’ll feel suffocated. American Crime is not escapism, it’s confrontation.

The filmmaking fits perfectly with the show’s belief that the only absolute truth is whatever we happen to feel in the moment — and that we construct our own version of “objective reality” depending on our upbringing, our agenda, and our pathologies, and rarely allow anyone else to truly penetrate or challenge our perceptions. There is a sense in which both seasons of American Crime are about how tribes perpetuate their existences: by defending certain members and disciplining or expelling others. (A lot of characters got offered monetary settlements or severance packages in exchange for not making waves anymore.) But after a certain point even that interpretation breaks down, because the definition of “tribe” is so flexible. The private school and the public school are tribes, and so is the basketball team, and so is every family on the show. And there are times when characters express allegiance based not on bloodline, geographical proximity, or professional affiliation, but on principle — like Sebastian, the vigilante hacker who decides to help Anne and Taylor by releasing unflattering emails from administrators and board members at Taylor’s school.

Characters might define themselves rather stridently as being a particular way or standing for a particular principle in one scene, only to entirely abandon that position when some new information alters their perception of what’s important. Some characters read as more unsympathetic, even villainous, than others, but because you always understand their points-of-view and have been denied access to facts that might clear up lingering mysteries, you never get that smug thrill that other TV shows give you, of being able to pass judgment on another person and root for their failure or disgrace. It’s as if the show is saying, It doesn’t matter if we like each other, we still have to try to understand each other, otherwise this democracy thing can’t work.