Must American Crime Make Us Play 'Spot The Gay Kid' With These Teenage Boys?
And other almost-burning questions sparked by the latest episode.
After four episodes, American Crime: High School Nightmare has put me in a precarious position. Several story points are juuuust on the cusp of making me mad, but it's too soon to know if the writers are actually committing to tawdry tropes or only bluffing like they are. It's possible that some of the one-note characterizations and cheap attempts to titillate are part of a long game that will result in satisfying nuance. It's also possible, though, that every drama on a Big Four network, no matter how ambitious, will ultimately aim for the lowest common denominator.
Because the season's first three episodes were so good, I'm choosing to hope for the best, but still...I have questions about what's coming next.
Does Anne Blaine just accept everything people say about her son?
For someone who's supposedly fighting for her child, Anne is awfully credulous about every rumor she hears. In the season opener, she instantly assumes that Taylor is being suspended because he's done something wrong, and she gives him an instant earful. That makes sense, I guess, since it's easy to accept what authority figures tell us, but still, it's weird that she jumps right to smackdowns without even asking Taylor what happened.
And you'd think, after his revelation about the rape, that she'd learned her lesson there. But no! Now, because of some printed-out emails and text messages, she has immediately accepted that Taylor went to that party looking for a rough-sex hook-up with Eric Lupton, the basketball team's co-captain. That may indeed be what happened, of course -- at this point, who can say? But you'd think Anne would ask her son about it before storming in and demanding to look at his phone.
I understand, of course, that Anne's being written as a hot-tempered woman who is deeply fearful for her son's reputation. One reason we see her get up in the face of that abusive diner patron -- the one who's clearly hurting his girlfriend -- is to witness her streak of righteous anger. I also understand that there was some kind of abandonment issue in the recent past that soured her relationship with her son. All of these factors make Anne the kind of person who will lash out.
BUT STILL, if Anne keeps swallowing whatever story she's given, whether by Taylor or the police or whoever, she's going to seem less like a character and more like a convenient tool for misdirecting audience sympathy.
The truth is, I don't need to play some season-long guessing game about who did what, and I don't need any startling revelations that upend everything I believe. That's what How To Get Away With Murder is for, and on a series as thoughtful and dense as American Crime, there would be plenty to explore, even if the facts of the case became clear and audience surrogates like Anne stopped whiplashing between theories.
And speaking of guessing games...
Do we really have to play "spot the homo" with these teenage boys?
First, we learn Eric is gay after he sneaks off in a car with some older, bearded man who apparently wants to rough him up. Now we learn Eric may have been engaging in rough sex with Taylor, who -- but for a tendency to look at dudes on a social media photo sharing site in a potentially "bi-curious" way -- has presented as straight. As in, when his mom bursts demanding to see if there are lewd texts from Eric on his phone, Taylor's hooking up with his girlfriend.
These complications don't concern me per se. Of course there are mostly closeted teenage boys who have girlfriends or who have dangerous sexual experiences with older men. God knows, my first "date" in high school was with a deeply closeted Marine who was easily six years older than me. That age gap mattered more when I was only sixteen, so when I see Eric's (and possibly Taylor's) turmoil, I'm intrigued.
What's not so great, however, is the peek-a-boo way the show keeps bringing up gay sex. There's always a "gotcha!" quality, as though there were nothing more shocking for the home audience than the horrifying discovery that some boys kiss boys.
The first indication about Taylor's possible queerness, for instance, doesn't come in a scene with Taylor. Like I said, he's off kissing his girlfriend. Instead, it comes when Anne gets confronted with his text messages. We're supposed to see this revelation through her eyes -- the shock, the horror, the incomprehension -- and since her revelation comes first, the show implies that it's the "correct" one.
If Taylor had somehow acknowledged his sexuality on his own before his mother was confronted with the messages, the story would have put us ahead of Anne. It wouldn't have suggested that her shock was supposed to be our shock. It wouldn't have implied that gay sex was shocking.
It IS surprising, of course, to learn that a boy we've been thinking was raped may have been doing something consensual all along. It raises all sorts of questions about what is and isn't true. But like I said above, I don't need -- or want -- a story about a high school rape to unfold like an Agatha Christie mystery. There's enough to plumb in this situation without a layer of tawdry intrigue that reduces complex situations to puzzle pieces in a game.
Put another way, the "guess who's gay" structure trivializes the power of the story American Crime is trying to tell. It also threatens to stigmatize gay sex, painting it as a brutal underground activity that leaves innocent boys bleeding or trying to commit suicide.
With six episodes left, these questions could prove moot, and I hope they do. But for now, they do nag.