[This is a review of American Crime season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
When the first season of American Crime premiered on ABC in March 2015 it was touted as the pseudo-crime twist on the increasingly popular anthology series. Created by Academy Award Winner John Ridley (12 Years A Slave, Three Kings) Season 1 opened with the murder of a veteran and expanded to examine race and religion in California. It quickly gained attention for its gripping writing and superb acting, garnering ten Emmy nominations. Regina King ultimately took home the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie.
Similar to Ryan Murphy's anthology series American Horror Story - or more confusingly his upcoming American Crime Story - Season 2 takes the key cast and flips the script completely. We leave the Modesto behind for a small private school in Indianapolis, Indiana where the basketball team trains, cheerleaders practice, and teenagers idly scroll through their phones. Here the basketball elite have just thrown a party, resulting in a series of compromising photos circulating through social media of scholarship student Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) passed out and clearly obliterated.
It's a quieter start to the show, but that quietness builds with a sort of rising tension that undercuts even the lighter moments. We begin the show mid-action, leaving the audience to catch up with Taylor as he discovers the photos, and struggle alongside his working single mother (Lili Taylor) as she reels in confusion as to why her son is being suspended, possibly expelled, for lewd photos and then grapple with shock as he finally confesses he thinks they "did something" to him.
The premiere largely sets up the story and the action to come in series. We're introduced to the Blaines and see how they struggle to pay the $20,000 in tuition for Taylor's schooling. Regina King is back as an exacting mother of a talented basketball player, and we get a glimpse of the wealthy, privileged school system with Dean Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman) and the beloved basketball coach played by Timothy Hutton.
There is no finality to what happened at the party - at least this early in the show - no convenient narrator to explain subtext, no hazy flashback to put conflicting stories into a clear light. The result is a very effective sense of unease and dread both for what they show and what we miss every time a scene cuts away. The first episode of ten, this is a simmering pot that has not yet begun to boil. Tackling rape and rape culture, the glorification of high school athletes as well as the dangers of social media is a heavy load. Crime bears it by looking not at the ideal itself, but the people who reflect them. Here the more traditional typical gender roles are reversed with a male as the victim of sexual assault and a female administrator cautioning his mother against false accusations.
It's tough material, but the outstanding writing and directing by Ridely keeps the action engaging. The deliberate and cold cinematography is jarring for a show on ABC, especially with the oddly matched Blackish as the lead in, but keeps viewers alert and often struggling to make out both sides of a conversation. As expected the acting is superb; Taylor stands out immediately as a powerhouse, her face quickly and clearly conveying confusion, frustration and sheer panic within moments. Hutton seems at home as the mentor and father-figure, but small moments and expressions hint at something darker underneath. This episode only offered us small glimpses of the characters, but they all felt developed and whole
With most of the adults on the show being proven veterans of the craft it was the actors playing high school students who had a lot to live up to. Much of the episode rests on Taylor as he grapples with the fallout from the party and Jessup is up to the task veering from fighting to crying in a heartbeat. There is not quite enough show yet to see if the rest of the younger cast holds up as well as he does, though they are all convincing as privileged, bro-ish students.
While this season differs wildly in topic it is connected by its tone, every bit as grim as the previous year, and is an intimate look at heavy, painfully real subjects. It's difficult to judge the entire series based on one episode alone, especially as it is so clear that each story thread is being carefully woven together and artfully crafted into something larger we cannot yet see, but the premiere sets things up admirably. Tense, disconcerting, and altogether engrossing, just trying to tease out the mysteries of the show should be enough to keep viewers interested.
American Crime continues next Wednesday with 'Episode Two' @ 10pm on ABC. Check out a preview below: