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.