March 9, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “American Crime”


ABC’s AMERICAN CRIME is Serious and Important, but how good is it?  John Ridley’s series takes on the biggest topics–all of them, it seems–from race to class to sexual orientation to school violence and the loss of privacy in the internet age, and not even Oscar-bait films wear a mantle of unrelieved misery quite so proudly (Spotlight, by comparison, is a slapstick comedy).  In case its themes aren’t heavy enough, the show hits you with its self-consciously ascetic style:  scenes played in extended close-ups with few cuts to other characters to moderate the intensity; spare use of music; profanity indicated by quick cuts to black.  One episode this season that took place after a school shooting even interspersed its fictional scenes with interviews conducted with actual survivors of school-related traumas like a Columbine teacher and the mother of a gay child who committed suicide after being bullied.  Pay attention! the series demands, grabbing viewers by their virtual lapels.

As drama, though, the lack of modulation tends to become monotonous and even predictable.  In tonight’s Season 2 conclusion, the purportedly central mystery of the story–whether private school basketball star Eric (Joey Pollari) raped classmate Taylor (Connor Jessup) at a team party, or the two had consensual sex–was left unsolved.  Instead, the script by Co-Executive Producer Diana Son doled out tragedy to just about everyone, in an hour staged by Nicole Kassell for maximum gloom.  The only triumphs were Pyrrhic ones.  School headmistress Leslie (Felicity Huffman) and coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) were fired, and Dan’s daughter Becca (Sky Azure Van Vliet) went to jail after selling drugs to Taylor, who was violently bullied after the attack and killed a gay-bashing classmate.  Taylor himself chose a 10-year prison term for the killing so as not to have Eric testify on his behalf about the bullying at a trial, leaving Taylor’s mother Anne (Lili Taylor) inconsolable.  Eric, out of the closet, was pursuing casual and potentially violent sex online.  Dan’s only victory was masterminding, with wife Steph (Hope Davis), Leslie’s firing.  The other team captain, rising star Kevin (Trevor Jackson), was ruined after it came out that he’d encouraged the rest of the team to attack Taylor, and Kevin’s successful lawyer mother Terri (Regina King) was demoted and transferred.

Had enough?  Ridley and his crew weren’t done.  In the apparent fear that the season’s racial conflict quotient wasn’t high enough, there was an entire side-plot about troubles in a public school.  It was only tangentially related to the main story, but there was enough of it for well-meaning school administrator Chris (Elvis Nolasco) to be unfairly fired, caught in racial crossfire.  A hacker (Richard Cabral) who helped Taylor’s mother after the school persecuted Taylor found himself on the frightening other end of a hack, the safety of his children seemingly at risk.  That doesn’t even count Eric’s unbalanced mother (Emily Bergl), who responded to the revelation of her son’s sexuality by accusing her ex-husband of child molestation (because how else could her son be gay?) and all but abducting Eric’s gay-bashing brother for a time.

This much woefulness had impact, of course, and there were many strong, moving, upsetting scenes along the way, and a great deal of fine acting, much of it from repertory members of the company who had played different roles in Season 1, with Pollari and Taylor especially notable this year.  In the end, though, the uninflected somberness was more powerful than deep.  There was little attempt to understand the characters, other than the facile insight that all the parents screwed up their children.  For an inclusive-minded show, American Crime also has an odd blind spot in the way it depicts its adult women, most of whom damaged the people around them, either through uncaring coldness (Huffman’s character) or by being well-meaning but smothering (Taylor and King).  The men, while less unlikable, mostly faded into the background.

It’s churlish in a way to criticize a series so intent on taking a serious look at society, especially on what’s quickly becoming the wasteland of broadcast network TV, loaded with procedurals and soaps.  But American Crime asks for that level of scrutiny by depriving viewers of any other entry point to its drama.  A series that aims so high needs to deliver at the level it’s chosen.

American Crime‘s ratings are low, and it was conspicuously missing from ABC’s comprehensive initial list of renewed series.  It sits squarely on the bubble, although the failed launches of The Family and Of Kings and Prophets may have helped its chances.  It’s an unquestionably worthy show, and one that deserves to continue–but the greatness it aches to achieve is, so far, beyond its grasp.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."