Rape. “You need to be careful with that word,” or so Felicity Huffman’s cold, insincere headmaster, Leslie Graham, tells an anguished mother. But Anne Blaine, like any decent parent, refuses to let her son’s private school sweep his assault under the rug, choosing instead to report his rape to 911.
Opening with that chilling call, American Crime is back to doing what it does best-confronting some of the most sensitive issues that we don’t want to talk about. And if it makes you feel like punching a wall, that’s a good thing.
Screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) not only brings together all-star casts for his anthology crime drama – including Huffman, Lili Taylor, Timothy Hutton and Regina King – but he crafts emotional storylines that dive into the heart of some of the most hot-button topics. After the debut season’s racially charged murder in North Carolina, now the scene is set in Indianapolis, with some old faces and a lot of new drama. This season centers around rape accusations made at Leyland School, and we witness the after-effects play out at both the private school and a nearby public school.
Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) is just a ‘keep your head down’ scholarship kid, until the day lewd pictures of him start circulating students’ phones. These photos of Taylor semi-conscious, inebriated and with his pants half-off are enough to warrant a three-week suspension to the astonishment of his mother, Anne, played by Lili Taylor. The cold formality of the administrators and the policy that restricts them from showing Anne the incriminating photos makes it clear to Anne that the school places the blame solely on Taylor’s shoulders.
“You’re gonna start telling me some stuff,” she demands of her son outside the school, and her reaction is cringe-worthy for any person remembering a time they incurred a parent’s wrath. But her efforts at communicating with Taylor shatter from the moment he refuses to ride home in the car, running away with his mother driving along behind him, clearly frustrated and at a complete loss for words.
Turning to the only person she can think of, Anne enlists the help of Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy (Angelique Rivera), who informs her that both of them were at a house party recently held by the basketball team, before showing Anne the damning pictures. But Evy doesn’t go to Leyland, and we can only assume that her life of caring for parents with ailing health is not easy. What she remembers most from the party is the snide comments from other girls about her appearance, that is, until she retrieved her boyfriend from a separate room-one that members of the team had brought him to. The only words she can offer up to his mother, holding back righteous fury, are that he was “messed up.”
Soon, we become a fly on the wall in the Blaine house, watching the tense, dramatic confrontation between mother and son from far away before zooming in to get an up close and intimate look at the face of two people dancing around an issue neither of them can put words too. Because when Taylor says he could not face his mother because of his shame, everyone knows he’s not talking about the one beer he remembers drinking.
Swallowing his tears long enough to get the words out, Taylor finally tells his mother the truth: “I think someone did something to me.”
And then Anne does the next logical step-inform school administrators. In comes the stereotypical prestigious school maneuvering, in which Headmaster Graham oozes fake concern while having Anne promise to keep the matter confidential, to protect ‘all parties’ involved. This is the first red flag for the grieving mother, who questions why other boy’s privacy matters when clearly her son’s did not. But it’s all she can do to give her statement, which Graham dutifully and copiously writes down, while the headmaster clasps her hand and promises to investigate the matter in a series of noticeably tense camera shots.
However, the well-being of a scholarship student is the last thing on the mind of a woman who only nights before had held a school fundraiser, enticing rich parents to “get out [their] checkbooks and start writing.” After all, they’re only $18 million from their $50 million goal.
So she does what school administrators are often accused of doing, passes the buck to someone else to either a) avoid having to deal with the issue herself or b) help the school keep up appearances. Either way, she has no trouble informing Coach Dan Sullivan (Hutton) that he is to immediately question his players and dig the dirt. Only, he doesn’t want to snuff the “rats” out. We don’t get to see what or how much was discussed in that brief but tense locker-room talk, but it was enough to satisfy the headmaster of the team’s innocence.
Anne approaches the school again to see how the investigation has gone, only to receive that same cold treatment that said her son was the only guilty party. It’s here that we get the first real dose of harsh victim-shaming that this show will undoubtedly bring, as Taylor is accused of engaging in lewd behavior and told to “make better choices.” Because obviously, the idea of a group of ‘decent’ male students sexually assaulting another male student is, according to the school, “bizarre.”
As if that isn’t enough, Anne’s “incoherent” statement – which Graham had her notarize – is thrown in her face for being full of accusations based on “things [she] said Taylor would not say.” Seeing that the school will do nothing to help her or her son, Anne does the only thing she can do: call 911.
Although the episode is centered on the Blaine family, we do peer into the lives and the psychology of some of the team members, notably Kevin LaCroix (Trevor Jackson), whose mother, Terri (Regina King), expects only the best for her family. Hers will be one of the most interesting characters to watch in coming weeks, because we will begin to see a curious form of racism not often seen on the screen, which we merely glimpsed in this inaugural episode. It will interesting to see how Kevin’s already odd behavior, reinforced by that awkward ‘sexy time’ with his girlfriend, will change over the course of the season when he is accused of assaulting Taylor.
The episode seems to be grounded quite well in reality. Other crime drama shows like Law & Order SVU have screenwriters like Roger Wolfson who are experienced in law, politics, and activism which helps give a sense of realism. Though in the cases of these shows, this experience tends to stay on the technical level and rarely goes into the emotional impact the events of the episode have on the characters. John Ridley’s experience in tackling uncomfortable issues and hard-to-explain emotions seems to have shone well in this new drama.
All in all, American Crime might just be one of the most exciting shows on television right now, simply because it will shine a spotlight on issues that some people don’t even consider to be issues. Unfortunately, Anne’s inference of Taylor’s abuse because of “what he didn’t say” or “things he couldn’t say,” is often what happens in real life when people do not believe they can come forward and speak about their assault. The lack of concrete evidence and the sheer fact that the accuser is a male means that Taylor’s battle against a system that says men can’t be victims of rape has only just begun, and we can expect dark days ahead for all involved in American Crime.
American Crime airs Wednesday nights at 9/c on ABC.
To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email firstname.lastname@example.org.