“American Crime,” in hindsight, was a less-than-ideal title — and something of a misnomer — for John Ridley’s bracing ABC franchise, making it sound too much like FX’s upcoming “American Crime Story” and established “American Horror Story.” Granted, the show has largely adopted the latter’s anthological template, featuring several recurring players in new roles while telling a self-contained story. The main difference is that Ridley’s series is thoughtful, sobering and spare — this time, shifting its focus from race to class distinctions — as opposed to the florid “Horror Story,” which by comparison winds up looking like a dim-witted kid brother.
Although the “American” part clearly works, albeit with a slightly ironic quality, “Crime” poorly applies to this second season, which considers matters of economic disparity, public vs. private schools and a fluid view of sexuality, all of which complicate a flurry of events that begin with a high-school party. As with the show’s first version, an escalating series of actions pile upon each other, leading decent, mostly well-intentioned people toward the maw of misunderstandings and mistrust, with potentially tragic consequences.
At the center of it all is Taylor (“Falling Skies’” Connor Jessup), a kid with a blue-collar mother, Anne (Lily Taylor, simply terrific), and who attends an elite prep school. His lack of means leads to him being labeled “WT,” for “white trash,” and prompts the administration to react harshly when texts surface of him looking blackout drunk at a party thrown by the basketball team.
What happened at that affair, however, causes Taylor to behave strangely, and his mother to draw the unsettling conclusion that her son has been raped. The accusation quickly filters through the school on multiple levels, from the headmistress (“American Crime” holdover Felicity Huffman) — who seems more concerned with preserving the institution’s reputation and fund-raising abilities than in discovering the truth — to the basketball coach (returnee Timothy Hutton). Also drawn into the drama is another season-one alum, Regina King, as the mother of the star player who hosted the bacchanal where the incident occurred.
Once again, very little here can be taken at face value as the four previewed episodes unfold, as the authorities start circling the wagons, initially seeking to dissuade the increasingly frantic Anne — feeling victimized because of her lack of privilege — from aggressively pursuing this line of inquiry. “You really want to do this to your son?” one of them asks.
Ridley has cast the show to the hilt, including the array of talented performers who populate the high school; Hope Davis as Hutton’s wife; Andre Benjamin as King’s husband; and Elvis Nolasco as a concerned teacher at the local public school. The series has again been shot in a naturalistic, almost hypnotic fashion, nearly free of musical scoring, and incorporating bouts of profanity simply by blanking them out.
It all speaks to a level of ambition that has become increasingly rare in the broadcast spectrum, as if abdicating to cable this level of quality, or at least the willingness to tackle serious issues in such a nuanced manner. The real crime here, in fact, has less to do with the alleged rape than it does with questions of fairness and justice, with Anne’s perception that she and her son are being dismissed because of who they are — a conceit that bores into a class dynamic seldom explored in this depth even in news coverage.
The series’ first season wasn’t exactly a hit, so credit ABC with allowing Ridley and company the opportunity to prove it was no one-trick pony. Whether critical acclaim can help bring more viewers to the show in its new Wednesday slot is probably a long shot. But for those with the patience to invest in it, missing out on “American Crime” would indeed be criminal.