Paul Lee got pushed out today at ABC. There are many things you can ding the man for about his reign as head of that network: the misguided initial version of The Muppets, greenlighting Work It! and Mixology (and scheduling the latter after Modern Family, while letting Trophy Wife die on Tuesdays), failing to turn either of his Marvel shows into hits (Agent Carter, by far the better of the two, seems unlikely to see a third season at this point), and struggling in general with any dramas not created or produced by Shonda Rhimes. At the same time, Lee was wise enough to turn over as much prime time real estate as he could to Shondaland, and he’s turned ABC into a great place for family comedies that are smart, funny, and reflective of what America looks like in 2016.
Lee also not only greenlit American Crime, but ordered a second season after the first was low-rated. It was a show that I admired more than I liked in its first season, but it was a very big swing for a network drama in terms of both subject and presentation, and an experiment that seemed worth continuing.
Last month, though, I confessed that I felt no deeper connection to American Crime‘s second season than I did the first, impressed intellectually but unmoved by it all, and suggested I would be okay not watching any more.
I was wrong.
It’s not just that I kept watching, but that whatever emotional spell American Crime had failed to cast over me previously finally took hold as we went deeper into the story of an alleged rape at a high school party, and the ugly fallout for all involved. In particular, the performances by Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari as the boys at the center of this mess have been so real and raw that they’ve cut through the sense American Crime sometimes gave in the past of being a dramatized series of position papers, rather than a story about people. The speechifying is still there, sometimes effective and sometimes not (last week’s scene with Emily Bergl as the homophobic mother of Pollari’s Eric was pretty sledgehammer-y), but the show feels human now rather than just a lecture.
And with those people to anchor the emotions of the story, the show’s become even more visually and technically adventurous. I’m not sure even most cable dramas would have the boldness to build a lengthy segment around a modern dance number – much of it filmed in a long single take – illustrating many of the story’s themes about human connection, sexuality, and violence, but American Crime did it with aplomb a couple of weeks ago.
Whatever barrier existed between me and the material had long since shattered by the time I got to the end of tonight’s episode, which left me shaking and breathless by the end of it.
One of the ways in which American Crime creator John Ridley has tried to push the outer edge of the broadcast network envelope is by letting his character use words that ABC won’t allow. (Nevermind that Andy Sipowicz said nearly all of them 20 years ago on NYPD Blue; whatever progress that show made in expanding the boundaries of network language got rolled back after the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Super Bowl halftime fiasco.) As a compromise, the sound is muted on those words, as happens occasionally on basic cable when characters drop an F-bomb. But, perhaps because ABC censors are worried about viewers reading lips, the picture drops out right along with the sound, with everything going black for a moment. It’s been a frustrating approach, because the blackouts tend to break focus on the scene and remind the viewer that they’re watching a TV show.
But the climax of tonight’s episode turned half of that device to its extreme advantage. As Jessup’s Taylor – physically and emotionally scarred from his treatment by the school and its students, high on painkillers, and with a loaded gun in his pocket – was berated by one of the bullies who beat him up at the end of last week’s installment, and as the invective kept building, the sound suddenly went away, but the picture didn’t. This time, the muting wasn’t covering up a bad word, but a terrible deed: Taylor firing the gun and apparently killing his tormentor. The stylistic choice likely would have worked anyway, but conditioning the audience to be used to a sudden loss of sound meant that there would be no distraction in this instance as viewers wondered if something went awry with their cable.
And the concluding scene, with Taylor and his mom (Lili Taylor, phenomenal) huddled in a booth at the diner that she manages, waiting for the police to arrive and likely put the boy behind bars for a very long time, left me every bit as wrecked as similar moments on the kinds of HBO and FX shows to which American Crime aspires. And next week’s episode, which I’ve also seen, continues to push and experiment, including sequences that blend the fictional drama together with documentary footage of real people who have been involved in related incidents.
So, yeah, I was wrong. This is a great TV show, and one that I fear isn’t much longer for this world. The ratings are slightly worse than last season, Paul Lee is gone, and the New York Times story that broke the news of his ouster said that ABC chairman Ben Sherwood wants to move away from serialized dramas like this and try to do the network’s own versions of NCIS.
Lee made a lot of dumb moves over the years, but he also gave us Scandal, The Goldbergs, Fresh Off the Boat, and black-ish. And he gave us American Crime. Not a terrible legacy, even when you factor in Work It! And I’m glad I stuck around long enough to finally click in on this last piece of that legacy. This is a job where I like being proved wrong, at least on shows I didn’t love to begin with, and American Crime has done a superb job of that.
What did everybody think of tonight’s episode, and of the season so far?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com