From Making a Murderer to The Jinx to FX’s upcoming American Crime Story, true crime is the TV genre du jour, making salacious murders or miscarriages of justice just as binge-worthy as your favorite fictional dramas. ABC’s American Crime, which enters its second season tonight, is a stranger beast. It has all the methodical hallmarks of a true-crime series, approaching a complicated case from a thousand angles with sensitivity and grace. But because it’s fictional, it has the strange sense of being perfectly calibrated—in other words, it lacks the messiness and peculiarity that makes a real crime story so compelling.
The first season of John Ridley’s show was bleak stuff, dealing with the murder of a veteran, police bias against people of color, and the pervasive effects of drug use in post-military life. It was superbly acted and made a concerted effort to avoid the pulpiness you might associate with a murder mystery. For the anthology show’s second season, Ridley has doubled down. He’s reassembled his terrific cast (including Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, and Lili Taylor) to tell the story of a teenage boy who was allegedly drugged and raped by athletes at a high-school party. Once again, American Crime admirably steers away from lurid territory to explore this tricky topic and all the racial and social issues that surround it—but this approach has the unintended effect of holding viewers at arm’s length from the story.
The fictional case draws on the Steubenville High School rape case of 2012, as well as a recent trial stemming from allegations of sexual assault at St. Paul’s School, and the case of Emma Sulkowicz (whose iconic mattress-carrying is referenced by the show’s victim). But in switching the victim’s gender, Ridley is asking pertinent questions about homophobic bias, society’s paternalistic perspectives, and the gray areas where race and class intersect. The victim (played by Connor Jessup), is a poorer white kid at a private school on a scholarship—some of the motivation for the crime initially appears to be motivated by his social standing, as images of him in a compromised position are passed around the school tagged with the word “white trash.”
Both of the students accused of the rape are on the basketball team—one is white and the other black, and both have their own privileges (their popularity at school, their family’s wealth). And yet Ridley doesn’t attempt to take any kind of one-sided stand with American Crime. He’s not telling a story about rich people versus poor people, or white people versus people of color, or men versus women. He makes sure to give each character—Felicity Huffman as the school’s politic headmaster, Timothy Hutton as the protective basketball coach, Lili Taylor as the victim’s distraught mother, Andre Benjamin as an athlete’s conflicted father—a solid balance of flaws and virtues, so there’s no absolute villain to root against, no singular source of injustice.
Maybe that’s why American Crime is a tougher watch than some of the more lurid true-crime entries of recent memory. It’s hard to get worked up when such nuanced stuff is being presented, and when there’s no real-life monster or societal ill on which to blame the horrors unfolding before your eyes. But this year’s case is more propulsive than season one’s murder mystery because it’s harder to see some obvious twist coming down the pike (in season one, the ensemble was less interconnected, so it was easy to assume that a plot device would eventually bring them all together). Ridley should be applauded for creating an involving world from the ground up so quickly without ever relying on stereotype.
But American Crime still feels academic and inert at times. It’s so methodical in laying out its dominoes that you’re almost too prepared when they eventually fall. The characters are well-drawn, but each is obviously there to represent the pitfalls that develop in a complicated criminal case like this one. Huffman’s headmaster is too intent on keeping things quiet; Taylor’s character ignores her son’s touchiness about the crime and is fueled by anger at a system that keeps trying to shut her down; Hutton’s coach can’t see past his own fatherly feeling for his players even as truths come to light. Ridley sets this all up carefully and thoughtfully, but if anything American Crime’s thoughtfulness is at once its greatest strength and weakness: It handles everything perfectly, but in doing so, it sacrifices much of the thrill viewers might expect from a crime drama.