Normally, I’m ahead of the curve on a much buzzed-about TV show, and am perhaps a little proud of the fact that I watched “Arrested Development,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Shield,” etc. when they were actually on TV (from episode 1) rather than a year after they went off the air.
“American Crime” is different in that it’s the first TV series I have ever watched after it’s been cancelled. And I’m glad I did, given the remarkable season 3 which is easily one of the best series of 2017. Better late than never…
“Worst” Season: Season One…No season of “American Crime” is bad, but if I had to pick a “worst” it would be season one. I believe it benefitted the most from the shock of “wow, this show is on ABC?!” Which really should tell you something about where the bar is currently set for broadcast TV. [Although maybe that low-bar of expectations is earned since the outstanding Season 3 was only 8 episodes and ABC promptly cancelled it afterwards.] I think season one—the longest and by far the most hyped—may be slightly overpraised as a result of its commitment to open, thoughtful storytelling and actual characters. Not that long ago, every broadcast network had at least one stand-out series that did roughly this same thing, and season one’s trojan-horse murder (really a springboard to explore race, religion, vengeance, media, politics, and grief) ends in such an anti-climactic “Whodunnit?–No really, whodunnit? Who did it again?” that it’s obvious the series focus is more on the long-lasting humanistic aspects of surviving a crime than the more temporary thrill of solving one.
That’s worth praising, as is the series boldness in asking likable actresses like Felicity Huffman and Southland’s terrific Regina King (if she hasn’t earned her own series after this and “The Leftovers,” when will she?) to play unlikable characters. Still, this is my least favorite season for the murder suspects, an interracial couple (possibly violent black man, and definitely crack-addicted and manipulative white woman) that couldn’t be portrayed more negatively if this were the prequel to “Get Out.” There’s only so many scenes you can sit through of Regina King’s Nation of Islam black separatist warning her brother to stay away from “that white girl” before you begin to wonder why John Ridley (who’s in an interracial marriage himself) would want this to be the centerpiece of an otherwise great TV series. “That white girl” is such bad news she even comes with her own cautionary music in a scene where the guy is breaking parole to do drugs with her. Grade for Season One: B-
Season Two…A strong start that eventually trails off, but man what a great first two-thirds of the season. Here, Huffman is even more unlikable as the phony head of an elite private school in the Midwest, who is doing her best to cover up a rape scandal between two boys at the school. Just like season one, a heady mix of themes is explored (“star” athletes preferential treatment, public vs. private schools, school violence, same-gender rape, sex, drugs, and everything but rock-n-roll), but the privilege explored here is less racial than class-based.
Lili Taylor is excellent as a boot-strapped working class mom who’s made some mistakes in the past (drug addiction, and the guilt of raising her son while grappling with demons), but is seemingly the only person who believes her son is telling the truth about being raped by a captain of the school’s winning basketball team, which is a prime driver of donations. As the school’s naive basketball coach, Tim Hutton is a textbook case of working-class people over empathizing with the rich and Huffman’s calculatingly corporate “educator” is Betsy DeVos before we had even heard of Betsy DeVos. This season actually looks better since it aired, but all the Trump administration parallels in the world can’t overcome unnecessary interviews with real-life victims of school violence in one episode, and an ambiguous ending that feels particularly unsatisfactory. Grade for Season Two: A-
The Best Season: Season Three…Let me start off by saying that unlike the first two seasons, we don’t just get hints about who committed the crime(s) showcased here, we get confirmation, and even though as I critic I’m supposed to say I really dig ambiguity blah blah blah this season about modern day slavery—from sex trafficking to farm workers—really does benefit from cold, cruel clarity, and the boldest storytelling of the bunch like a seemingly huge plotline wrapping up in the middle of the season. That’s also because it’s the first season with multiple, ongoing crimes, and by showing the crimes (and those responsible) it’s ironically achieving the first two season’s desired affect of saying everyone is responsible, there is no one face of evil. Unlike the first two seasons, there are roughly a dozen plotlines and they don’t all overlap until the final moments of the final episode, but that’s because it’s telling a much larger story that still—miraculously—is character-based and narratively thrilling without sacrificing any of the drama. [Which characters and storylines you love will be wildly subjective, but I got tired of Huffman’s oblivious farmwife. Would a woman who’s spent so many years being married to a farm-head really not know farm immigrants aren’t treated well?]
What Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” was for drugs, this season is to human trafficking, and it is so good, it’s the first time I felt the “I can’t believe this is on ABC!” praise was warranted. But in a weird way, it’s almost better because it’s not on a more permissive network that would allow it to go over the top, because you’re focusing on something scarier than topless teens prostituting themselves or graphic murders: emotional cruelty that has to play out with mostly swear-word free dialogue and implied violence. Isn’t the psychological threat of violence what really keeps the abused au pairs, the non-citizen farmworkers, and the teenage runaways from escaping? The terrifying truth of this season is that anyone can be an oppressor, from neglected, frazzled housewives to farmworkers that think they’re being necessary enforcers of productivity when they’re really just reveling in dispatching abuse. In the season’s pivotal moment, Benito Martinez (who hasn’t been this good since “The Shield”) finally tracks down his son’s killer and the man looks at him almost confused when asked for an explanation. “He brought it on himself. He broke the rules.” And it’s that casual matter-of-factness that really chills you. In a truly oppressive system, a murderer does not even think he did anything wrong because of “the rules” that they create, and that’s about as good an explanation for modern-day slavery as there is. Grade: A