Look Carefully, Because American Crime Deserves Your Full Attention
The editing on this show is so good that you shouldn't miss a jump-cut.
I wasn't even planning to watch American Crime, let alone watch it with enthusiasm, because it really sounds like an earnest high school social studies lesson, you know? I assumed this show was the equivalent of the time we did a unit on racism in American History, and everybody got up with their collage posters of MLK and their pocket summaries of Uncle Tom's Cabin. What else could a "serious issues drama" on a big-four network possibly be? When you have to break for a Honda Civic commercial, how deep or how interesting can you really get?
But then, during the holidays, my high school made international news when a member of the basketball team was raped by his classmates during a trip to play a rival town. Suddenly, American Crime's second-season story -- about a high school boy who is raped during a party thrown by the basketball team -- seemed sickeningly apropos. And so out of some weird quest to let TV help me process my feelings, I watched the premiere episode.
Within twenty minutes, though, I'd forgotten about my vaguely personal connection to the story and my own reticence to tune in. As it turns out, American Crime is wonderful -- absorbing, thoughtful, and dramatically urgent. (You may have heard Joe Reid saying the same thing on a recent episode of Extra Hot Great.)
There are plenty of things to recommend the show, including a universally exceptional cast that includes Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Lili Taylor, and Timothy Hutton. Even Andre Benjamin, known to most of us as the guy from OutKast who wants to shake it like a Polaroid picture, gives a great performance.
Their work is boosted by wonderful writing. As the universe of characters comes to terms with the sexual assault of young Taylor Blaine -- a poor kid who's going to a fancy private school on scholarship -- we get insights into how race, class, sexuality, gender, and peer pressure (from adults and children alike) dictate everyone's behavior as much as their rational thinking. But these don't feel like easy signposts of "important themes." Instead, each major issue arises from a dramatically compelling situation. Taylor's friend Evy, for instance, still goes to his old school, and in the latest episode, when she gets pulled out of class to talk to the police about what happened at the party, her dad has to leave work to join her. That means his paycheck gets shorted, which only underscores the economic stress of everyone at the school. And THAT issue is buttressed by a subplot about local school board members who are fighting to change the free breakfast program for needy kids.
I have no idea how (or if) that school board subplot is going to overlap with Taylor's assault, but I'd actually be fine if it didn't. I like that the show allows the characters and their world to be about more than just this one criminal case. It puts the central crime in context, and it keeps the scripts from feeling too didactic. Plus, it's an honest approach: when something awful rocks a community, it's never going to be the only thing happening.
That's also what happens with the editing. And it's this visual language that has become the real dealmaker for me -- the thing that has guaranteed I'll keep watching all season. Similar to HBO's The Casual Vacancy, American Crime uses a jarring juxtaposition of images to pull us deeper into the states of its characters.
Take the first scene of tonight's episode. We start with Leslie Graham, the school's headmaster, looking at a performance venue (presumably for a dance piece she was watching rehearse in an earlier episode). Her delight in imagining the show is obvious, but her conversation with the venue's representative is spliced together with a tense grilling from a local reporter who has heard from Taylor's mother about the rape.
So on one hand, we see Headmaster Leslie as a passionate woman who loves the free expression of culture, but on the other, we see her as a cool, steely operator who manipulates the truth to push blame away from her school and onto an abuse victim's emotionally rattled parent. Both parts of her are true.
Later, there's a scene where Kevin Lacroix, a captain of the basketball team, talks with his dad, Michael, about girls. In the midst of their very adult conversation about what is required of a man who wants to be in a serious relationship, we cut to images of Kevin's childhood photos, which are scattered around his dad's office. The characters don't mention the photos, and we might not notice them if it weren't for the close-ups.
So why do we see them? To me, they underscore that this kid -- who we know is about to get embroiled in this assault case, especially since his name is publicly linked to it in the journalist's article -- was raised in a loving family. This preemptively complicates any assumptions we might be tempted to make about him later.
And what a treat for a network show to reward paying close attention, instead of just repeating the plot basics over and over for the people who are half-watching while they text and check email. (Note: this is how I watch Elementary).
I'm also loving the way some scenes stay focused on one person in a conversation, even when someone else is talking. We have to take in their fear or frustration or doubt, and it reminds us (or at least me) how much we can learn from the way someone listens.
Plus, there's a scene in this episode where Terri, Kevin's mother, learns about the article in which he's named, which results in crazy jump-cutting. She'll be mid-sentence, and then the scene will skip ahead a few seconds. It's like the show itself is mimicking her frantic response to what's happening.
But then, near the end of this installment, the show stands stock still, not only for the scene where a police officer tells Headmaster Leslie that, yes, there is physical evidence that Taylor was raped, but also for the scene in which Taylor and his mother decide not to talk about it over dinner.
By the time we reach these moments, we're primed to feel the weight of the held gaze, the long pause. They're the final touch of an incredibly artful editing style that makes American Crime one of the best things on TV this winter.