Class. Race. Sexual politics. Rape culture. Season 2 of American Crime, created by the masterful John Ridley of 12 Years A Slave, might just be the greatest season of TV in a decade.
The scene: an Indianapolis high school. The players: the victim, Taylor Dane, accusing the champion basketball stars of the elite private school where he is the scholarship kid of drugging and gang-raping him at a high school party; the sports stars and their parents; a recalcitrant and homophobic board of school governors; and Taylor’s single mom, Ann.
Approaching its penultimate episode, this season of American Crime has shot straight through any barrier of stylistics to present the viewer with a world so believable the show could convincingly be labelled a horror. Because of course the true horror of American Crime is the fact that it is a mirror-image of American crime. All the ugliness the characters reveal as the season stretches on – from the anti-black sentiment of Regina King’s Terri LaCroix, to Emily Bergl’s “Did you touch him?” moment in episode 6, to Leslie’s hideous mismanagement of Taylor’s assault – is true to life.
There is nothing sensationalised about the presenting of high school sexual assault when the victim is a young man, and for that, the show’s realism is heightened to almost nightmarish levels: watching this show, where everyone is sympathetic, and everyone is complicated, is like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland.
Perhaps what makes Ridley’s show so stellar is the fact that all the characters are treated with pathos and humanity; this puts the viewer in an unusual and uncomfortable position. Where do we accord our sympathies? With Taylor would be the obvious choice, perhaps until episode 7. But what about Eric Tanner, Taylor’s accused assaulter who tries to commit suicide? Or the LaCroix family; by every estimation they should come out on top – they are the most influential parents on the school board, Terri is a multimillionaire businesswoman, and husband Michael a successful architect, their son is captain of the basketball team, but he is also black, and the uniqueness of the American justice system and the court of public opinion when it intersects with the black male body is certainly not lost on Kevin’s parents; so are we to empathise with them, to the detriment of Taylor and his single mother?
And this is the point; American Crime presents us with no clear heroes because it is realistic. In real life, everyone has a little of the heroic and the villainous in them. This unwavering commitment to reality is why Ridley’s masterpiece is so terrifying, because when we watch this show our viewing experience is constantly interrupted by the question: what would you do in that situation? What would you do if that were you?
Alongside The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal, American Crime stands up silently and powerfully as a prime example of what TV can be, how it can spark difficult conversation around socio-political issues we think would be better to forget exist. It is quite possibly one of the greatest shows of our time.
So get watching.