Cast: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Connor Jessup, Regina King, Lili Taylor
Each year, shop the creators of American Crime start a new story on their program. Last year, shop the program’s first season focused on a murder. In this — the program’s second season — the show focuses its lens on a small private school that becomes involved in a rape scandal when one of the school’s less well-off students accuses members of the basketball team of drugging and sexually abusing him during a party.
In the season premiere, Taylor (Connor Jessup) sits up in the bleachers while the school’s elite basketball team practices on the court. While scanning through social media, he finds photos his classmates took of him at a recent party. The photos show Taylor half-naked and passed out on the floor. Taylor doesn’t remember much of the party and after the school suspends him for violating their code of conduct, Taylor tells his mother (Lili Taylor) that he was drugged at the party.
What follows from that accusation is a vivid and undeniably riveting exploration of a community in crisis. Not only are Taylor and his mother affected by the situation but the community at large is as well.
Barb Hanlon (Felicity Huffman), the unsympathetic headmaster of the private school Taylor attends, minimizes the situation hoping that the school won’t be negatively impacted by the crisis. The basketball coach Russ Skokie (Timothy Hutton) struggles to maintain control and a good relationship with his team — a team he says wouldn’t allow something like this to happen. Terri (Regina King, who won an Emmy for her work on this show last year) and her husband (Andre Benjamin) try to protect their son Kevin (Trevor Jackson), the basketball team captain whose name surfaces when the accusations hit the press.
The entire community is affected by Taylor’s accusations and John Ridley, the show’s creator who won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave, is brave enough to let his powerful plot slowly unfold for the audience. The story here unravels with new revelations arriving every week. None of them seems built merely to shock the audience; they merely exist to show how one situation can devolve into another one and that even the most vulnerable characters aren’t flawless.
The writers deserve enormous credit for continually touching on raw and serious subjects and letting the characters react naturally to them, despite the fact that many of these reactions are hard to stomach. Because the cast is so tremendous (one of the best ensembles on television today), few of these characters seem like caricatures despite the fact that they often handle situations in an ugly fashion.
When Russ hears about the allegations against his team, he says “If there was something, I’d know something” and when Terri says “Boys don’t get raped,” these are not the words of one-dimensional characters. These are the words of characters who don’t realize the naivety of their own worldview. It’s a testament to Ridley that he lets his characters say and do repulsive things without letting their humanity disappear.
The true standout on the cast for me though is Connor Jessup, who does a remarkable job with his character. After the alleged rape, Taylor is overwhelmed both by his own confusion and by the whirlwind that erupts when the allegations go public. Here is a teenager who knows he’s been violated but who also knows the hell he needs to face to find justice. With every secret that’s revealed and every obstacle he has to overcome, it’s hard not to lose sight that there’s a student here who was put in an untenable position and has to live with the situation for the rest of his life.
There are few shows on television that are as daring or as powerful as American Crime and there are few shows as valuable as this program. Every few weeks, it seems that there’s another college or institution that is trying to cover up a rape accusations for the sake of good pr. It’s an ugly reality that real victims are going unnoticed and this show confronts so many painful realities about sexual assault that it’s hard not to appreciate how important and truly ground-breaking this show truly is.
Review by: John Hanlon