Something I often hear when I talk to people about queer stories in film and television is that they’re tired of how depressing they can be. There’s an extent to which many of us want to see happier stories with emotional uplift; sometimes, watching the bleakness that can so often be or have been present in our lives manifest onscreen can be overwhelming. In many ways, it’s these stories that often bear the hardest truths, and sometimes these are truths the LGBTQI community need to confront.
American Crime’s second season, currently being fast-tracked in Australia on Presto, confronts those truths head on. Like Fargo, American Crime is an anthology series, reusing actors from its first season as different characters in an entirely new story. Created by John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, this season’s storyline tackles a topic rarely explored in depth on television – male-on-male sexual assault – and examines its ramifications to dig at the roots of homophobia, classism, sexism, racism.
At the story’s centre is Taylor (Connor Jessup), who attends Leyland Academy on financial aid. The day after going to the captains’ party for Leyland’s basketball team, Taylor finds pictures being shared of him on social media – drunk, partially clothed, covered in vomit.
(Plot spoilers below, up to and including episode six.)
His mother Anne (Lili Taylor) reports the incident to the Head of School, Dr. Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman), who tries to sweep the incident under the rug. Anne calls the police to report what happened, and Taylor goes to a hospital to have a rape kit test, conducted in the show by a real sexual assault nurse); she contacts a journalist when she feels the report isn’t being taken seriously. The story comes out, and testing on Taylor’s clothes finds traces of blood and semen from the night of the party.
This story is incredibly dense and complex. Sub-narratives can run parallel to the story, feeding off it or intersecting with it to create new meaning. One of the basketball team’s co-captains, Kevin Lacroix (Kevin Jackson), is 18-years-old, so when the journalist’s article comes out he is the only person named. His mother Terri (Regina King) and father Michael (André L. Benjamin) panic, but it’s only the viewer who sees Kevin discussing what happened at the party conspiratorially with other players, including his co-captain, Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) – the other boy at the party.
It’s only after Eric attempts suicide that he comes out. It’s clear that Eric – who repeatedly labels people “bitches” – has deep-seated internalised homophobia and associated shame, only made clearer by his religious parents’ reactions to his coming out. But when he reveals that he and Taylor had pre-arranged a hook-up at the party as well as sexting each other “a blueprint for a rough encounter”, it turns the case into an instance of what is known as ‘withdrawn consent’.
American Crime is cagey with these details and doles them out methodically across a string of episodes, and this is because it’s less interested in the case itself than the ripples that form, shifting and changing the lives of those caught up in the waves. Taylor and Eric are two naïve, hurt young men, over-resourced with access to hook-up apps but underexposed to the kinds of support and information that LGBTQI youth often need to survive. It’s sobering viewing for anyone who struggled with their sexuality or gender identity.
It’s often said that the depressing gay narrative is a cliché, and in some ways it is. And American Crime is, perhaps, depressing, and definitely distressing. But its bleakness is, sadly, reflective of reality. 82 per cent of LGBTQI youth face bullying and 64 per cent feel unsafe while at school. These statistics and these characters derive from the same places, and American Crime excels at detailing the subtle manner in which systemic prejudice invades cultures and institutions, fueling quiet, adolescent tragedies. It becomes clear early on that most people would prefer to look the other way than constructively address what has happened.
The performances are uniformly excellent, and while Jessup and Pollari aren’t yet actors of the same stature as Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor, their performances sear into your memory. The two young stars carry the full weight of the show’s socio-political and ethical questions on their shoulders, and their work is indicative of extraordinary talent. Pollari and Jessup play their characters’ brokenness differently, but their vulnerabilities come from equally heart-breaking places. Watch for the flickers in Eric’s macho façade, and the way Taylor seems to choke on his words, almost totally unable to express how he feels or what he wants in life.
The forces which move these characters around are cosmic; it’s in the seventh and most recently aired episode that the star at the centre of the galaxy collapses, pulling everyone towards the black hole that takes its place. It’s only at this point in the season that the crime of the show’s title occurs, setting us up for the last three episodes and reframing everything that has come before.
The eighth episode is set to intersperse the story with documentary interviews with LGBTQI survivors of bullying and assault in yet another daring formal risk. American Crime is as magnificently directed and shot as the very best dramas; watch for the minutes-long single-take shots in the fifth and seventh episodes, which are true marvels of both technique and performance. And the fourth episode opens entirely with this wrenching slam poetry performance:
This kind of involved, bold story-telling has no real precedent on TV. Shows rarely make sexual assault and homophobia the central focus of more than an episode at a time, and an entire season devoted to this story, with these characters, feels borderline revolutionary. It’s immense and shattering and keenly empathetic. And while it’s vital these stories exist for all of the above reasons, there’s another one as well: so hopefully, one day, we can look back at them as an important reminder of the past, not a devastating account of the present.