A lot of television criticism becomes a critique of execution. Good ideas are put forward, but something’s off: a performance doesn’t quite land, the character logic doesn’t quite track, or limitations of budget or time—basic realities of making broadcast television—stand in the way of telling the story the way they wanted to.
But then you have cases like tonight’s American Crime, which I believe is executing the story it wants to tell at a high level. It’s just not the story I thought they were telling, and dramatically alters the scale and focus of the show in ways that in my experience undercut what made the show so compelling earlier in the season.
I am not confused regarding what John Ridley and the show’s writers are doing with this season’s eighth episode. The choice to open on real-life testimonials—from victims of school shootings, from parents of gay youth who committed suicide, from victimized youth—and continue repeating them throughout the episode works to reframe the season’s story as an effort to explore the underlying social strife that leads to events like school shootings. Want to know what could drive a teenager to show up at his school with a gun? The second season of American Crime serves to contextualize such acts, telling the story of how circumstances would lead Taylor to become part of this larger trajectory.
It’s clear why Ridley would be attracted to this story. The choice to obscure the climax of Taylor’s narrative means Ridley gets to make a clear statement about what we think we know about this type of story. And I obviously agree with the series’ position that we cannot understand these events as a simple cause-and-effect, but rather must explore how deeply complex struggles like Taylor’s are subject to equally complex systems of prejudice—the private school system’s business-like failure to take responsibility, the public school system’s lack of resources to deal with systemic issues, the basketball team’s crisis of masculinity manifesting as violence, etc.
But in context, I struggle with this framing of Taylor’s story on two levels. The first is that, if I’m being completely honest, I never thought about Taylor’s attack last week as a school shooting, and it created a point of dissonance in tonight’s episode that never reconciled. I think this is part of the show’s point—it got us to think about Taylor’s story as nuanced and complex, and then pulls back to reveal it was actually a story that we normally think about in simple, individualistic terms. But while I take that point, I also felt the show’s strength this season was how difficult it was to pin down its “point,” muddled as it was in a situation that thrived in its ambiguity. And so to see the show take to a soapbox to be very explicit about what it wants to do undercuts the complexity of the story being told, albeit while trying to make a case about how complex it is. Taylor’s story, in particular, has been told through strikingly observed moments of internalized struggle, all about looks and fever dreams and interpretations, and so to see his story suddenly turned into a “real-life” lesson rings false.
The second issue is that, while I understand why this would be perceived as a school shooting within the world of the show, the result is a season that’s moving away from its most compelling stories. As much as the framing mechanism works to tell us this season was about understanding Taylor’s psychology, tonight’s episode is oddly disinterested in him, shifting focus to how his actions set off a chain reaction in the rest of the show’s characters. And while it’s possible we’ll return to Taylor’s story more closely in the future, the way the framing mechanism seeks to link Taylor’s story to these real life tragedies makes it feel like we’re now focused on the fallout of his actions, that his story is now “one of these stories.” There is still a subtle narrative to tell about Taylor and his actions, but we primarily focus our attention here on more histrionic, reactionary stories about the people around him, and I find that to be a considerably lesser show in practice. There has always been a focus on the larger community in the show, but it was grounded in Taylor and Eric’s personal experiences, and removing Taylor from the equation to make a point about school shootings makes a “statement” but also leaves a gaping hole in the story that gets filled with less subtle material like Eric’s mother or Coach Sullivan (who joins Leslie as an enemy of the truth here, and not in a way I found dramatically interesting, even if it’s more understandable than other reactions).
American Crime has always been a show that wants to make a statement, and I respect that about it. And when the show used a spoken word performance about a case of male rape to open a previous episode, it worked as a way to reinforce the broader social dynamics that informed its storytelling, and one of the season’s standout scenes uses a real sexual assault nurse as a way to ground Taylor’s experience being examined following his attack. But these statements were subtle and brought us further into this story, whereas the device in tonight’s episode only served to take me out of it. It was the show saying “Oh, you thought that nuanced and complex portrait of sexuality and masculinity in crisis was the American Crime? Well this is the real American Crime,” and while I see the pedagogical function of that position, its dramatic value is a net negative.
Combine with an episode that markedly shifts the perspective of the series in ways that compromised where the show previously did its best work, and you have a case where too much sacrifice was made in the interest of making a point instead of letting the drama speak for itself.