By: Zach Siddiqui
American Crime is a show that focuses on deconstructing and analyzing various social issues through esoteric lenses. The first season starts with the murder of a war veteran in California, and it uses the ongoing investigation and trial to explore gender, race, and class conflicts; the third season, set in North Carolina, explores immigration and poverty through the story of a Mexican immigrant who ends up trapped in a slavish labour job which essentially goes unpaid.
Because each season operates as a self-contained story — although many of the actors return as new characters — you can pick a season and watch it standalone. For that reason, I started off watching the second season, which was haunting enough on its own.
Set in Indianapolis, season 2 follows the story of Taylor Blaine, a financial-aid student at the exorbitantly ritzy Leyland School. After compromising photos of Taylor half-naked and blackout intoxicated at a notorious annual house party, the Captains’ Party, end up online, Leyland suspends him for failing to meet their public-facing standards. When pressed by his mother, Taylor reveals why he didn’t tell her sooner: he might have been sexually assaulted that night.
The show does an excellent job exploring the issues that surround sexual violence against men. Much of the town is in disbelief that a high school boy could be targeted — especially by another high school boy. When Taylor’s queer sexuality is revealed, the additional layer of “you wanted it” pervades the case. Most frighteningly, you soon realize that everyone — the principal at Leland, the other students, the parents — is so out to protect their reputations in the midst of the allegations that they really couldn’t care less about what actually happened to Taylor.
As details on what happened that night come out through investigation, it becomes clear that the case is not so open-shut. The show forces the audience to reassess their own understanding of what consent means. It manages to humanize both Taylor and Eric Tanner, the eventual accused, while condemning neither of them, yet it does so without ever once discounting the gravity of sexual violence or descending into a victim-blaming message. By the end of the season, the narration never confirms which boy was telling the truth, nor what happens to either of them going forward.
Even while covering such heavy material, the show explores several side-plots and secondary themes. A miniature race war erupts at the public school Taylor transfers to, between the Black and Hispanic students. The LaCroix family, whose son Kevin helped host the Captains’ Party, are passionate in denouncing racism even as they discriminate against various other characters for other things, like Kevin’s girlfriend for being less rich or Taylor’s mother for her mental health struggles. Evy, Taylor’s girlfriend, finds herself used and denied agency by nearly every adult and every guy in her life.
Yet, the overall minimalism of the show means that it can get away with covering so much ground. The show does nothing better than economy of storytelling, communicating high volumes of ideas in petite packages: single lines, single images, brief exchanges. The visuals of the show are experimental and beautiful, adding a coldly surreal element to the otherwise very grounded-in-reality narrative, and every shot means something.
The show was cancelled after its third season, but it’s still available on Netflix. If you want something psychological and insightful without being anvilicious, I very much recommend it.