‘American Crime Story’ Has A Problem And The Solution Could Be Better Crimes


American Crime Story has a problem. After a debut season that set the world on fire, both ratings and cultural relevance have taken a dive in season two. There are reasons for this, of course, many of which were outlined by Alison Herman in this piece at The Ringer. Some of the most notable:

  • Following up the season about the O.J. Simpson trial was always going to be hard, in large part because the O.J. trial was a huge, huge deal at the time and therefore featured so many well-known elements that the audience had a solid frame of reference going in. Couple that with a bunch of big-name performers going huge with their portrayals of the people involved (“Juice”), and it was a tough act to follow.
  • The actual Versace part of The Assassination of Gianni Versace proved to be a red herring, as the season has focused mainly on his murderer — a serial killing cipher of a man named Andrew Cunanan — and the crimes he committed that led up to the titular murder.
  • The fun and campy elements of the first season, which helped make a story about a horrific double murder more palatable, have been replaced with a dark psychological dive into the mind of a sociopath.
  • No Travolta.

All of which is mostly fine. Kind of. It could be fine. I’m sure there are people out there who are really digging the season. But the thing is, between the tonal shift and the well-worn, oh, let’s call it “serial killer porn” focus, it appears to have turned off a sizable chunk of the audience. That’s a shame. Season one was so much fun, both the on-screen experience and the community element of it, where gobs of people had gobs to say, ranging from silly takes on small parts of it to deep looks at the serious issues — racism, sexism, a broken justice system — raised by the trial. I want that back for very selfish reasons, if nothing else.

I think the trick is in picking the crime. It needs that combination of familiarity and a surrounding public and/or media circus. I’m not sure the topic for the already announced third season, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, will get us there either, because it’s hard to make bureaucratic failures sexy. (Although it wouldn’t hurt if they cast Travolta as George W. Bush, just to see what happens.) And so, what I’m going to do here is toss out a few other crimes that might work. I’m not nearly delusional enough to say I know how to fix the show, but I do love crimes and the promise of this series, so at the very least I want to do what I can to help.

Some suggestions:

American Crime Story: Watergate

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The crime: A break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel is traced back to Richard Nixon and the cover-up and ensuing investigation lead to his resignation.

Why it could work: A few reasons. First of all, because special prosecutors and investigations into potential high-level executive branch chicanery are, I’ve been told, relevant to The Current Political Climate. It has tons going on: Journalism things, crime things, mysterious missing chunks of audiotape, etc. The episode about the Saturday Night Massacre would be wild. And whoever plays Nixon (Travolta) has the option (mandate) of going full-on Vegas buffet with the scenery chewing, if he (Travoltaaaaa) so desires.

Almost too perfect.

American Crime Story: The Unabomber

The crime: Math prodigy and anti-technology sociopath Ted Kaczynski terrorizes the country over a two-decade span, sending bombs through the mail that kill three people and injure over 20 more, until he is captured in a remote Montana cabin thanks to an FBI tip from his brother.

Why it could work: It has the familiarity and 1990s setting that the O.J. season had, first of all, so that can’t hurt. And it could lean a bit into the Black Mirror “technology run amok” thing for the tie-in to the present. (“Look, I’m not saying he has a point, Chief, but…”) But mostly, the focus on a decades-spanning investigation and the eventual brother-aides capture could make for some interesting television. We wouldn’t even need to see the Unabomber, really. Maybe only in shadow-y glimpses. We could Zodiac-up the whole thing until the reveal at the end when the FBI storms his cabin and he (surprise, it’s Travolta in a big fake beard) gets dragged out into the light of day for the first time.

Admittedly, there’s also a serial killer porn element to this, but I think if the focus is more on the media and the investigation, it could be a thing.

American Crime Story: St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

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The crime: On February 14, 1929, as Prohibition rages on and organized crime takes over the illegal liquor business, Al Capone and his Chicago gang trick a rival gang with a fake police raid and kill them all with Tommy Guns as they face the wall.

Why it could work: People love mob stories. A lot. And this is one of the biggest ones ever. It could touch on everything from the crime itself to the Prohibition officers trying to plug the cracking dam to the politics involved in it all. Lots of potential current-day War on Drugs parallels. And I, for one, cannot wait to see what John Travolta does with the role of Al Capone.

American Crime Story: The Treason of Benedict Arnold

The crime: Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary War general and the nation’s most famous traitor, sells out the American army and defects to the British.

Why it could work: Perhaps you’ve heard, but depictions of Colonial-era activities are hot hot hot. This one could be campy as all heck, too, with Arnold sneaking around and being shady at every turn. It’s not quite as sexy or familiar as some of the other options (I’m not sure how many people have knowledge of Arnold that extends beyond “he was a traitor”) (maybe it would help if everyone rapped?), but I think we can all agree that John Travolta would make a fascinating George Washington.

American Crime Story: Gold Bucket Heist


The crime: In late 2016, the NYPD released footage of a man grabbing a bucket — off the back of a truck, in broad daylight — filled with over $1 million in gold flakes. An international manhunt ensued, which led to a) the NYPD releasing a photo of the suspect on a wax replica of the bike from E.T. at Madam Tussaud’s, because that was the only photo they had; and b) the realization that he somehow made it all the way to South America. And, just recently, the man responsible, Julio Nivelo, who also went by the alias “Luis Toledo,” which is awesome, claimed that most of the illicit proceeds were then stolen from him by a duplicitous lover.

Why it could work: Oh, it absolutely could not. At least not for a full season of television. Maybe a Lifetime movie. (Would watch.) But I’m including it anyway because I really like telling the story and because my two other favorite heists — the $100 million Easter Sunday jewel heist orchestrated by a group of senior citizens and the multimillion-dollar maple syrup heist — took place on foreign soil and are therefore ineligible for inclusion in American Crime Story.

Plus, who would Travolta play? No, as much as it breaks my heart into pieces, this one just will not do.