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‘American Crime’: Assessing, and reassessing, season 2 of the ABC series after the finale

Character Taylor Blaine (played by Connor Jessup) is

Character Taylor Blaine (played by Connor Jessup) is at the center of "American Crime" Season 2 on ABC. Credit: ABC / Ryan Green

ABC’s “American Crime” -- not to be confused with FX’s “American Crime Story” -- wrapped a second season Wednesday night, amid questions about guilt, remorse, consequences, and ... the future. Specifically, its own future.

Under new management, ABC Entertainment has yet to renew “Crime,” maybe the most critically acclaimed broadcast network series of the 2015-16 season, and a highbrow bid for the sort of prestige and Emmys that have eluded -- indeed, avoided -- the big four networks in recent years. Plus, with a diverse cast and exploration of issues not normally caught dead within a mile of most network prime-time series -- homophobia, race, class -- “Crime” has sought to attract those viewers caught in the more rarefied orbits of HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC.

Results have been mixed. Most buzz has gone to that other series with “American Crime” in the title, while ratings are modest but promising by one important measure, the live-plus-seven day figure (or ratings compiled over a week from other sources, like streaming).

“Crime” almost doubles its audience over a week’s time, to about six million viewers. People are coming to this series; what’s unclear is their level of passion, and that’s a metric ABC will have to take under consideration as well.

If you are new to “Crime,” the basics: It’s an anthology series with a core cast -- including Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Elvis Nolasco and Regina King -- who appear in brand new roles each season. Written by established African-American novelist John Ridley, he brings another bona fide to this enterprise -- an Oscar winner for the “12 Years a Slave” screenplay.

“Crime’s” second season was about a teen at a prestigious Indianapolis school, who claimed he was raped by a player on the school’s basketball team. Suspicions eventually settle on one Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) -- who vigorously denies the charges, but is forced to come out when they become public. The teen, Taylor (Connor Jessup), tells his mom, Anne (Lili Taylor), a single parent who works as a waitress, and who then takes the charge to school principal, Leslie Graham (Huffman). A careerist and cautious bureaucrat, Graham sizes up the considerable risks of a public airing, and proceeds to equivocate and temporize. Anne then goes on the offensive.

With his accusation, Taylor essentially reaps the whirlwind, bringing other families -- even another school -- under scrutiny. Careers are threatened, then ruined. Later bullied and beaten by members of the basketball team, Taylor finds his mom’s gun -- and kills one of the offenders. The balance of the season then considers the vast consequences of that action, and “Crime” ends with Taylor taking a plea deal that will keep him 10 years behind bars.

It also ends on a question -- did Eric really “rape” Taylor or was their encounter consensual?

That’s not resolved, and viewers are left to consider the unsettling and alternative possibility: Maybe they are both telling the truth as they saw it.

In any event, another teen is dead, and careers are in ruins. Positions are also hardened. No one seems to have learned anything.

Close to credits.

An unsatisfying conclusion? Without doubt. As viewers, we’re conditioned to want answers, and after a wrenching 10 episodes, feel we have a right to them. Moreover, by refusing to answer, Ridley threatens to cast Taylor in the role of victim, a sort of morally relativistic escape hatch that overlooks the fact that he did kill another teen.

But it’s also clear that’s where Ridley wanted to leave viewers -- examining their own feelings about whether they wanted Eric guilty or not, or Taylor essentially guilty of pushing over this entire house of cards, and killing another person in the process.

The second season was based on the familiar notion that when faced with two choices, people will usually take the one based on self-interest or self-preservation. But that choice becomes complicated -- or the stuff of tragedy -- when filtered through deep-seated convictions about race, class, and/or sexual identity. In polite society, like the one at The Leyland School, those convictions or biases obviously aren’t advertised, but tucked away inside, or printed in private emails on servers that aren’t supposed to be hacked. (They were eventually -- a major plot point this season).

So: Should “American Crime” come back for a third? The easiest of answers: Yes. The second wasn’t perfect, and indeed, occasionally turgid. But Ridley worked with big, ambitious ideas, finally admitting -- or acknowledging -- that they didn’t come prepackaged with simple or obvious conclusions, or interpretations. That's interesting and thought-provoking, which are reactions not normally associated with a network primetime drama. 

I didn’t necessarily like the ending but I admired Ridley’s ambitions. Network TV absolutely does need this kind of voice.

Here’s hoping we hear it again.

I wonder if we will? 

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