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Hey ‘American Crime,’ why so serious?

Senior Television Writer
01.06.16 18 Comments

ABC

When “American Crime” debuted a year ago, I was as impressed by creator John Ridley's ambition in what he was trying to accomplish with the anthology miniseries' first season as I was skeptical about his ability to execute certain aspects of his vision. Still, there was enough there to admire – committed performances (by Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Regina King, W. Earl Brown, and more), gorgeous direction and cinematography, a willingness to incorporate difficult social issues into a network drama – that I expected to see it through to the end.

But admiring something and enjoying it are two different things, and after watching one episode past the initial batch that ABC had made available to critics before the season, I kept letting “American Crime” slide further and further down my to-do list, even during (relatively) slower periods later in the year. The thought of returning to it felt like homework, and when there were so many other dramas just as high-minded, but more genuinely entertaining week to week, it became an easy one to put aside.

One of the advantages of the anthology mini format, though, is that you can jump into a new season without having finished the old one. I watched the first four hours of “American Crime” season 2 (it debuts tonight at 10), curious to see what kind of story Ridley aimed to tell this time, what sorts of roles he might use returning actors like Hutton, Hoffman, and King in, and whether he modulated any of the things that most put me off of the first go-around.

Ultimately, though, the experience was the same: I found the new season absorbing in fits and starts, but ultimately so didactic and, especially, humorless that I'm probably comfortable leaving the story – and the series – here.

The new story revolves around an accusation of rape against a basketball player, and possibly players, at an elite private school, with the scope constantly shifting and evolving as new information comes to light. In the new version, Huffman is a school administrator, Hutton the basketball coach (and Hope Davis his wife), King the wealthy and powerful mother of one of the players (and Andre Benjamin her husband), while fellow season 1 returnees Lili Taylor and Elvis Nolasco play, respectively, a working-class single mom whose son attends the school on scholarship, and a teacher at a nearby public high school frustrated by the resources he has versus what some of the parents have dubbed the “segregation academy” that Huffman runs.

So once again there are issues of race and class coming to a quick boil, but now with teen sexuality, sexual identity and other topics thrown in. And Ridley has done interesting things in terms of how he's recast the returning actors, so that at first glimpse they appear to be doing 180-degree turns from the previous role – say, Huffman as a polished spokeswoman for the elite, rather than the bitter woman telling tales of life in public housing – before unexpected commonalities appear. It's not spoiling much, for instance, to say that Huffman's character once again becomes one of the most unpleasant characters on television in short order, just in a more presentable package. The school setting also creates more connectivity between the characters, who are linked even before the rape accusations go public.

Still, the series is relentlessly grim in a way that seems better suited to the short-term commitment of a movie than to devoting 10 hours (whether all at once or over many weeks) to watching a season of TV. (And it's so clinically detached that the darkness of it all doesn't even feel cathartic.) And Ridley, who won an Oscar for his “12 Years a Slave” script, has turned out to be a much stronger director than writer, not only getting bracing and committed performances from his talented actors, but showing a real eye for how to convey certain themes visually, in a manner that's more effective than some of the blunt-force dialogue. (To make sure we understand the skewed sexual attitudes of the teen characters, for instance, we get one of the boys admiring a photo of a girl and declaring, “I so wanna rape that!”)

Once again, “American Crime” is a show that's beautiful to look at, uses a superb cast well, and doesn't flinch from confronting difficult issues. I applaud its continued existence, especially on a broadcast network like ABC. I'm just okay not watching any more of it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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