Spoilers ahead for the season finale of American Crime.
American Crime creator John Ridley tested out different ways to end the second season of his intensely engaging ABC limited series. In the end, the fates of Taylor Blaine and Eric Tanner, just like the true nature of the sexual incident that forever changed their lives and their Indianapolis community, are left up to interpretation.
“A lot of the actors disagreed with me on this, but I thought this ending, more so than any of the other ones I read, emphasized choice,” said Connor Jessup whose measured, heartbreaking performance as rape victim Taylor Blaine was a season standout. “Even when Taylor is in the system and Eric is not [bluffing], they still have choices ahead of them and many choices ahead in their lives, and to me that is an optimistic proposal. So I saw it as hopeful, essentially.”
This season of American Crime pivoted on two plot points: social-media bullying and a male-on-male sexual assault involving a high-school basketball team. But those incidents proved to be catalysts for a deeper exploration of socioeconomic differences, sexual orientation, race relations, gaps in the educational system, and gun violence. The school's and community’s lack of response to the assault triggered several horrific events: Eric, the accused teen’s (played by Joey Pollari) suicide attempt; the beating of the assault victim, Taylor, by the accused’s friends; and finally, Taylor shooting and killing one of the boys who attacked him on school grounds.
“In the first season, we didn’t have a lot of young people on the show so we wanted to look at environments we were creating for young people,” Ridley said. “For a show like ours, we do a lot of cascade storytelling and things ripple out, so we want to make sure we have rich enough areas that can actually sustain themselves over ten episodes. We start with a bigger condition and then we get to the incident — what will drive the story forward? We have a cultural density, a view of how rape happens, who it happens to. But the point is that it happens too much and it’s not reported enough. We went from there.”
In separate interviews with Vulture, Ridley and Jessup discussed the show’s open-ended conclusion, its unique visual style, and the prospect of a third season.
About that ending.
Ridley: As we were going through constructing the ending, Michael J. McDonald, the other producer on the show, said to me, "You know John, you're a novelist, you've got to approach it the way you would a novel. It's got to be literate and it's got to have a horizon to it; it can't treat the reader or the audience in this case with contempt. You've got to believe that they have the capacity to engage in a more challenging ending." My wife watched it and she said to me, "I didn't know what to think. I really wanted to believe the best for these boys." And I said, "But you can. Whatever you want to believe you can believe.” If we had told you that Taylor was lying or that Eric had actually done it, you know, it's finite. But with this ending I think there is an emotional conclusion because, ultimately, like a good novel you believe that these characters are going to live beyond the last page, and for the audience member, there's that space where they can go, Okay here's what I believe is valid. It's open. That’s what our mandate has always been — to be observant and not to preach or proselytize.
Part of making sure that the ending felt appropriate was that there was closure to all of these stories. For Sebastian, a guy who came in and really controlled the digital space, the reality is that when it's unregulated sometimes no one controls it. For the LaCroix family, even though they were exonerated in a lot of ways, their past, and past statements, catch up to them. It was very important for me that all of these characters were allowed to have an ending and a resolution of some kind or another. They're going to go on and live their lives, and it's not going to be easy. It may be very difficult, but there are opportunities for them if they can find a way to embrace those opportunities.
Jessup: The other endings I read were not radically different. They were clearer, a more explicitly optimistic portrait of how Taylor was coping with things. But of all the versions I read, this was my favorite. As you went more through the season and got deeper into it, it became clearer that John was telling this tale of two cities with Eric and Taylor and frequently juxtaposing them and giving them parallel episodes. When Taylor gets beat up, Eric gets beat up. Despite coming from opposite perspectives, they go through a lot of the same things. And that compare and contrast is one of the most interesting parts of the season. That ending really emphasizes that in a really beautiful way.
And the school shooting.
Ridley: Taylor thought about it and changed his mind, but as he’s leaving, he got assaulted again. And the reality is that, unfortunately, despite one's intentions, having a firearm in certain spaces does lead to bad things. That's a reality and that's what we wanted to express. We have seen the versions where it's an enraged shooter going to a school or a place of business and gunning people down. But we wanted to talk about something else, too. When somebody does reach a place where they've transcended certain feelings and emotions but you insert a gun into the conversation, things change. Taylor's mom keeps saying, "Yeah, but he didn't mean to do it and he was assaulted and attacked," but the lawyer says, "But he stole the gun and he had it on school property; those are the facts that you're going to have to deal with." And that's something we wanted to deal with.
Jessup: He had the conversation with the receptionist, and there’s that small moment of kindness, and it just hit him: What am I doing? It's one of those moments when you feel in yourself, Why am I here doing this? I think he was definitely leaving, which makes it obviously more tragic. I had no idea that this is where things were going until I read that script. There were whispers on set and John only wrote and directed two episodes, but I had no idea we were going there. It was very, very difficult.
On Ridley’s tendency to keep plot points close to the vest, sometimes only allowing actors to read the script pages that pertain to them.
Jessup: All I know is that before we even started shooting, John said to me that there's going to be a lot of twists and turns and things that Taylor is hiding, things that he's not saying, but there's something in the core of your story that is true. He wouldn't tell me what that was or whether that was literal or emotional, but Taylor’s not a liar. There's something in what he's saying that's true. So it's up to me to decide what element that was. Especially the first month we were there, whenever we would talk, any conversation I would have with him would inevitably end with him patting me on the shoulder and saying, "So, young man. Are you all right? You doing good?" "Yes, I'm good thank you." And he’d say, "Because it's going to be really hard. There's going to be a lot of hard times ahead." There was a point when he would be saying this to me, and it was episode eight or nine, and I was like, "John, how much more difficult could it possibly get? How much harder could it get? I don't understand." John is like the show: He’s very exact and methodical and focused on specifics and details. Under all that, there’s an enormous flow of goodwill, genuine empathy, and care. The reason the show feels very human is because of that.
Ridley: The reality is that when these kinds of tragedies happen, we don't get advanced warning. And obviously by the time we get the script we have a week of shooting or whatever and they'll have time to adjust themselves for it. But as a showrunner, I don't like for someone to be focusing on something that happens in week six when we're working on week two. Tim Hutton didn’t know his daughter was going to be a drug dealer. It was very important to me that his performance never indicated that he knows or should know or is concerned about knowing. It really isn't a theatrical trick. In a show that is so much about reacting to life, it's very important to get as close as possible to true reactions rather than to build up a performance over time.
Sometimes when we see actors at red carpet events like the Oscars, it's very glamorous. But if you’re an actor on set, you have 150 people standing around you, cameras in your face. It's outside, it's cold, you've got to do the scene over and over again, you're pulling a lot of emotion, and then it's like, "Okay, good night we'll see you back tomorrow, and tomorrow you've got to be all happy. And then Thursday, you gotta act crazy." It's very, very difficult, and I do want to make sure for all of our actors that they're able to embrace these emotional burdens that we put on them when necessary, but dispense with them when needed. And, particularly for the younger actors, these are folks who are down there largely without family, friends, loved ones. And you want to make sure every step of the way that you don't just send them back to a hotel room and hope they're going to be okay. I hope for all of them that I helped to create a good space.
On the show’s unique visual style (which overlaps dialogue, often focuses on people who are listening rather than talking, splices scenes, and presents them out of order).
Ridley: There’s a lot of pseudo-documentary style now — people use handheld cameras and that's become shorthand for documentary or making it a verisimilitude. I don't like that. I like a very composed frame, so we do everything in studio mode. It's on a dolly. The camera moves as little as possible. When it does move it doesn't pre-motivate things but simply tries to be observant to the folks around them. People talk about the way we do dialogue, where we have overlapping dialogue, but a lot of people overlap their dialogue. If I'm talking to you, I'm just looking at you, I'm not looking at me, so I don't know exactly how my face is reacting. Maybe you're telling me something and you're suddenly like, "You don't care about what I'm going through," and I'm like "No, no, I was just thinking about something else for a minute." We tend to do wide shots or tight shots because in life you either stand at a distance from someone and observe them or you get close enough to have an intimate conversation. There are things that are done in the majority of broadcast or television or media and they're done well and they're done as a matter of course, but for American Crime, I did want a different language. And it's not different in the sense that I invented it, but rather the styles that I appreciate the most. I wanted to build on them and bring that to a space you really don't see it a lot.
Jessup: Almost all of American television and American film has certain formal rules that you can expect to be followed automatically. One of them being if you're not speaking, you're not on camera. And unconsciously that creates a style of acting where you feel like you need to convey as much as you possibly can into the words you have. But on American Crime, you don't know where the cameras are holding on something for a long time. It's entirely possible that you could be in a two-minute-long scene and the audience won't see any of you. It's entirely possible that you could be in a two-minute-long scene and the audience sees between your chin and eyebrows. It makes you feel like you have room to breathe, weirdly, despite the extremity of the close-up. It gives you a sense of freedom in a really profound way. Especially for a character like Taylor, it's great. He struggles so much with talking, and compared to other characters, he speaks very little, so I think that character would be much less effective in a more traditionally assembled show. I was very lucky not only to get to do that character, but to get to do that character in this environment.
On casting Jessup (best known for playing Noah Wyle’s son on Falling Skies).
Ridley: I give so much credit to our casting director, Kim Coleman, who put this young man in front of us. From the first time he read, he just had sensitivity in terms of how he delivered the material. It's very mature material; it's very provocative, but he could own it. He’s such a hard-working young man. Really dedicated to his craft. There were moments in putting this show together where I realized that four of the central characters were going to be played by people who were in their teens and early 20s, and I thought, maybe I could find one person who is like that, but am I really going to find four amazing young actors who can deliver opposite some of the best of the best? Lili Taylor, Felicity Huffman, Tim Hutton, Regina King. And we found people who could do it. They really, really work.
Jessup: In the first audition and network test, there was no full script available. It wasn't ready at that point. And the description of the part and the show was extremely brief and vague, so I didn't know it was about a sexual assault. I had to piece it together from little clues in the scenes, which, weirdly, was not that different than the actual process of shooting the show. Taylor is someone that clearly struggles to verbalize things, struggles to coalesce around a certain way of saying something. He claims not to remember what happened very well; he remembers in fragments, he remembers bits and pieces, he remembers feelings. So it's very visual. That removal from exposition was helpful, and it also made it fun. When you're given a full script and extensive breakdown and notes from the casting directors, you feel like you know what they want. That's helpful, but you feel cornered. You feel like they made a point of saying they wanted this, so I'm going to have to portray some version of this. Here, you don't have any of that. You can kind of do whatever you want. By the time we were working on the show, you show up and the person sitting across the table from you is Lili Taylor, for example. [She played Taylor’s mother.] I don't know what kind of actor I'd be if I was given this script, and given Lili, and wasn't able to do at least a little something with that. I’d feel like a total failure as an actor.
On the possibility of a third season of American Crime.
Ridley: I really believe in my heart that in the end everything is going to work out the way it needs to work out. I could not have had bigger and better supporters than ABC. I'm not saying that in the past tense as if there won’t be a third season. But other than sitting around in passing thinking about what stories I want to engage in, I really haven't gone through the process in thinking a lot about the show. Irrespective of what happens, ABC has done something that is just singular. I would certainly love to have the opportunity to do more, but I don't know specifically what more there is to do. We've been so blessed bringing these kinds of stories, things we did in front of the camera, behind the camera, the kinds of opportunities we've provided. To me, that would be the biggest thing — just knowing how many of our directors are women or of color or different orientations; same thing with our producers, same thing with our crew. That's the space that we want to provide, so that's the biggest thing.
Jessup: Of course, I’d want to be on it! I don’t know what John and Michael want to tackle if there is a season three. Season two was very conducive to having younger characters because it revolved around schools. Season one didn't. If they want to have me back, I'd be there at the drop of a hat. This show was the best experience I've ever had.