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.
American Crime Story: Watergate
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.