Monday, April 04, 2016

Criminal Tension

It’s fair to say that my usual television habits aren’t exactly light-hearted. I loved Breaking Bad, but generally saw it more as a surrealist family drama. So understand that when I say that American Crime is tense, I mean it’s, like, REALLY tense. This is probably the most uncomfortable show on television. Counting the Republican Debates.  If you can get yourself comfortable with being a little uncomfortable, however, it’s one of the few shows that I’ve seen where I continually think to myself, “How the hell is this show on television?”

So, something light and effervescent tonight then? 

Before I go any further, I should mention that American Crime is not to be confused with American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The latter is the latest offering from Ryan Murphy and company, capitalizing on the success of American Horror Story by launching a new anthology franchise that will explore real American history. American Crime is also an anthology series, however this is from writer John Ridley who is most known as the writer of 12 Years a Slave.

As an anthology series, American Crime changes its story each season though retains much of the same cast. The story this season revolved around an elite private high school in Indianapolis and the fallout that occurs at that school and amongst the students, teachers, parents, and community members when it comes out that a student reports the he was raped at a party hosted by the school’s powerhouse basketball team. That set-up alone should tell you most of what you need to know about all the places that this show is unafraid to go: the simmering racial tension that exists in American cities, overt and covert homophobia in a post-Obergefell country, what politicians used to call “class warfare”, and the morally grey area that school administrators inhabit in trying to provide an education in a time when funding is low or non-existent.

American Crime is unflinching in looking at each of these issues. It’s also a testament to how well put together the series is that it never feels overstuffed despite all the issues on its plate. That’s largely because it correctly understands that the uniting strand behind all of these things is a collective fear of “the other”, the person that is different from us. As such, all the racism, homophobia, class tensions, privilege, and cutthroat business actions are accurately interpreted as symptoms of the same ugly disease.  What makes it good television is that the characters are so completely watchable that viewers are far more likely to get wrapped up in the story than feel like they’re attending a political rally.

This scene actually passes for almost "playful" relative to some of the others... 

So what’s it actually about? The action mostly revolves around an elite private school headed by Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman) and attended largely by the children of Indianapolis’s upper class families.  Working class mother Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor) is an exception, sacrificing all she can to afford the tuition for her 17-year-old son Tyler (Connor Jessup), who previously attended one of the city’s rougher public schools. The story begins when Anne is informed by Leslie that Tyler is set to be expelled from the school after lurid photos showing him drunk and in various stages of undress have surfaced on the internet, a direct violation of the school’s code of conduct. Tyler confesses to his mother that the photos are genuine, however that he was, in fact, drugged and raped by another student while attending a party hosted by the co-captains of the school’s massively successful Basketball team.

Tyler’s claim is the catalyst for significant unrest at the school, currently in the midst of a multi-million dollar fundraising effort that Leslie hopes will catapult her to an even loftier position than Headmaster. At the same time, it shakes the confidence of the school’s basketball coach, played by Timothy Hutton, as he must face uncomfortable questions about the behavior of his players, including whether or not one of them is truly guilty of the crime and if so what that means. Caught up in all of this is the LaCroix family, headed by matriarch Terri, played by Regina King. Terri’s son, Kevin (Trevor Jackson) is one of the two co-captains and Terri worries that these allegations will derail her carefully planned future for her child. As one of the wealthy, she can afford to hire representation to protect Kevin’s interests, even if that means causing harm to victim Tyler or to the other student implicated directly in Tyler’s claims, co-captain Eric (Joey Pollari).

Safe to assume "have conversation about not getting involved in a rape charge" was not initially in her work plan.

Terri is a mass of contradictions and Regina King plays every one of them beautifully; she’s the driven perfectionist career woman who wants to play the boys’ game but is intensely aware of what it means to be an African American woman in that world. She is both controlling and patronizing of her son and at the same time his biggest champion and a doting mother. She represents the curious intersection of being one of the sole minority families at an elite upper class predominately white school and at the same time being one of the wealthiest, affording her son access to the kind of privilege that other characters can’t even dream of. Seeing Regina King walk the fine line of each of these near-contradictions every episode is one of the joys of watching the show.

Likewise, watching Felicity Huffman as Headmaster Leslie Graham is like watching a Venus flytrap getting ready to spring. Leslie is utterly composed and in control, exuding concern about her students while managing the political and administrative duties of her school. All that control belies her ruthlessness, however, as we quickly see when trouble descends and Leslie manipulates, maneuvers, and manages problems away, always with a level voice and the kind of platitudes about leadership and responsibility that have all the genuine emotion of a Successories poster. Her chief concern lies with preserving the school and her record as an administrator, though she’s so darn sensible sounding, even when she explains to a grieving mother that because the mother signed a piece of paper while emotional, the school has no obligation to safeguard the mother’s damaged child. She isn’t cold, per se; she’s tactical.

"Yes. I am fantastic, aren't I?"

What makes the show particularly uncomfortable, aside from the subject matter generally, is watching how each of these characters from their varied perspectives approach the issue. Race is front and center, though handled without the easy shorthand of poor-black-rich-white characterization that many stories fall back on. A significant subplot revolves around the actions at one of the public schools after three Latino students attack a black student for groping a girl. The school’s overtaxed principal, played by Elvis Nolasco, suspends the three Latino students for their frankly violent assault leading to outrage by the Latino community who point out that the black student went unpunished despite attacking a girl. The principal, a black man, must examine how his approach is not only intended but viewed by communities that are already racially divided.

Ugh. Simmering racial tensions in high school. Worse than math homework, amirite?

Homophobia is also an evident theme and, with one particularly terrifying exception, is addressed mostly in the kind of “er, not that there’s anything wrong with that” wishy-washiness that shows that a fair number of people actually believe that there is, in fact, something very wrong with that but just recognize that they can’t say such things. (There are likely a lot of Trump voters in this story.) Tyler’s mother and his girlfriend struggle to find the middle ground between being supportive of him and deeply uncomfortable with his lie-of-omission. Tyler’s sexual orientation becomes a subject of debate as he’s called to justify his own feelings because they have bearing on a criminal case. His own family, one that is deeply loving of him, shows their own flaws when Tyler recounts how one of the surrogate parents who helped raise him, a man who still clearly cares for him as a son, unthinkingly continues to throw words like “faggot” around as insults.

And then there’s the issue that makes everyone uncomfortable: Tyler’s rape. Anyone who has spent any significant time around the issue of rape will recognize all the hallmarks of familiarity here. As the series progresses, the rape takes on a grayer hue reflecting the reality that most rapes aren’t committed by strangers in alleys but by someone we know. When it comes out that Tyler went to the party willingly and, in fact, with the intention of having clandestine sex with his attacker, not only does Tyler have to come clean about his sexual orientation but also the very nature of it and the exploratory nature of sex itself. When his mother angrily demands to know if he intended to have sex, his response is a weak but ultimately exactly correct one: “I didn’t go there intended to be violated.” We logically know that we’re not supposed to blame the victim, but the myriad of ways in which we still manage to are fully on display here, particularly given that the victim is male.

Predictable MRA bullshit misinterpretations to being in 3...2...

When you’re dealing with so many heady issues, it’s inevitable that some of the presentation is going to get a little mucked up. Viewers may find it unsettling that the victim of rape here is male, particularly given that the number of male rape victims, while certainly in existence, is far outweighed by the number of females. It’s not that hard to draw the conclusion that the rape is given its importance only once it becomes something that happens to men. And while there is a female victim of sexual violence among the show’s ensemble cast, her story is given nowhere near the heft or screen time as Tyler’s.

Likewise, the show’s one prominent African American family is wealthy and powerful, particularly in contrast to the other predominantly working class white families. At several times in the season, different white characters seek out Terri LaCroix and her husband to ask for assistance and are unilaterally rebuffed every time. It’s not terribly hard to see a racist form of wish-fulfillment embodied here whereby a viewer, again likely also a Trump voter, would interpret this as yet more evidence of how black people have gotten the upper hand over white people and white people are punished unfairly. While the show clearly takes pains not to sympathize with such a position, it shows just how tricky it is to tackle these issues even given the full breadth of ten hours’ worth of air time.

Which, ultimately, is what leads to the points in American Crime where the writing stumbles. The show is very eager to address big issues that don’t normally get their day on TV aside from a few “very special episodes.”  For all the deftness it manages in raising these big questions, it has a hard time providing any answers to them. In addition to a narrative and thematic gap, it also leads to some plainly uncomfortable dialogue. Characters are tasked from time to time with expressing the themes of the show, leading to dialogue that no human being has ever said independently. It’s so eager to get in the big point that it sometimes tells when it should show. The writing works best when it isn’t trying to underline its own thesis.

The end result of this story is less about a particular bad thing happening than it is about how bad things continue to happen. It illustrates how crime creates a ripple effect. One crime inevitably leads to another and victims can become perpetrators startlingly fast. Episode 8 even inter-cuts the dramatic action with real life interviews with the victims and survivors of school shootings and bullying attacks, showcasing starkly both the victims who chose a better path and the ones who opted for revenge. In the final episode, not every storyline has a clear resolution and the final picture is far murkier than the one that we started out with. Which is to say, unlike a lot of television, American Crime can be just as uncomfortable as real life.

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