Elite private schools, underfunded public schools, teenage passion, cyberbullying, sexual violence, and more come together in a network TV show debuting this week.
The anthology series “American Crime” premieres for its second season on Wednesday (10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific times) on ABC.
The first season of the series by executive producer John Ridley had nothing to do with the education themes mentioned above. It was about a murder in Modesto, Calif., and the suspect’s path through the legal system. But the season did earn acclaim for addressing issues of race and justice.
Under the anthology concept, used by other shows such as “American Horror Story,” the story shifts but some of the same actors return. For “American Crime,” Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman, among others, are back from the first season, but in radically different roles than the ones they played before.
The second season starts at the Leyland School, an expensive private high school in Indianapolis where Huffman plays Leslie Graham, the headmistress (though she refers to herself as the “headmaster.”) The school is in the midst of a $50 million capital campaign, we learn from Graham, and proudly provides financial aid to needy students and participates in the state voucher program.
The premiere opens with Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), a junior at the school who is on scholarship aid, looking over some pictures on his phone. The pictures are of Blaine when he got drunk—and possibly was drugged against his will—at a basketball team party.
The photos come to the attention of Graham, who suspends Blaine for violating the school’s rules. But it is evident that there is more to the story, and Blaine’s mother, Anne (Lili Taylor, also a holdover from the first season), draws out that her son was sexually violated in some way at the party. “I don’t know what happened,” he tells her. “They did something to me.”
Blaine isn’t on the basketball team, and while he thought he was fitting in with his would-be jock friends by being invited to the party, we learn that at least some students view him as “white trash.”
The mother meets with the headmistress to seek answers, and Graham seems to take the allegations seriously. She asks the revered basketball coach, Dan Sullivan (Hutton), to ask his players what happened. Two of them will become the suspects in whatever happened to Blaine.
I only got to preview the first episode, but ABC’s press materials indicate that the controversy at the private Leyland School will soon become intertwined with a student and parents from a low-income public school.
Those familiar with Ridley’s work (besides “American Crime” and other TV shows, he was executive producer of the Oscar Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave”) suggest we should expect some twists and turns and “American Crime” progresses.
Based on that first episode, the storytelling and production values are first-rate. If the show has something to say about race, class, and sexuality issues surrounding American education, it appears it will say it in entertaining fashion.
Some critics have suggested that the title “American Crime” doesn’t fit the themes of the show’s second season as well it did the first. (And they point out that yet another anthology series will debut soon with the title “American Crime Story.” The first season of that series, on the FX cable channel, will rehash the O.J. Simpson case.)
But given some of the issues that American schools, public and private, must confront these days, perhaps “American Crime” is an all-too-apt title for a dramatic series that has education as the backdrop.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.