Monday, February 1, 2016

Shakespeare, Indiana

 


 
 
 
American Crime is in its second season, and this season has the same dour, dreamy, urgent feel as its first.  There's hardly any soundtrack music to coax scenes out of what they actually are -- just a throbbing hum from fluorescence or maybe it's just God sleeping.  And every actor is keyed up and centralized; you feel their faces somehow, feel their thoughts.  I love the whole setup of this limited series.  John Ridley is the creator, and he's fashioned a Shakespearean nightmare world out of Indianapolis, Indiana, transforming suburbs, exurbs, tenement apartments, basketball courts, pancake houses, and private and public high-school hallways into high-tragedy venues of seriousness and sorrow.  The writing has an intensity and drive to it; every hour episode moves through like a semi on the interstate.  What the characters say feels authentically boxed-in, as if culled through surveillance, and yet there's an artfulness to it all too, as if each character is a type we've never come across before on TV or in movies, and yet we've known them all our lives. 
 
Felicity Huffman's Leslie Graham, the private school's highbrow, hyper-professional headmaster, has the steely-eyed reserve of a non-profit dragon-lady, and yet the way she's performed you have access to her ability to compartmentalize for the "greater good," meaning she can take advantage of women like Lili Taylor's Anne Blaine, a working-class mom whose son attends the private school on scholarship, and who seems to have just been raped by one of the school's basketball players.  Boom.  Taylor's hurt registers like a fish-hook into a palm; you feel all she's been through without knowing a single thing about her.  It's her eyes and mouth, the way her hair hangs down her face.  She's a restaurant manager who's overworked and anxious to help her son ascend.  When she finds out about the assault she speaks with Ms. Graham, thinking that something can be done, an investigation, punishment, whatever.  Ms. Graham's instinct is to ask her to sign some papers before she leaves.
 
Regina King's Terri LaCroix, an upper-middle-class African American mother, wife and manager, whose son also goes to the school and hosted the party where the assault allegedly happened, is distinctly over and above it all, tired of having to justify herself .  King is triumphantly and constantly reminding anyone in the room that she has ascended, through body language, through a heated flicked in her eyes.  She is letting all of us know she is no longer "one of those people," and that she is tired of all of us not noticing that.  In one scene, she has to fire one of her African American underlings, a woman who asks her, "Can you do something for me?"  She hates the insinuation that the two of them are connected by race, and complains at a wine bar that night with some of her friends that she's sick of those kinds of expectations.  And then later in the same episode, when confronted with the assault controversy and worried about her son's culpability, she invites a cop friend over to her home and asks, without a note of irony or apology, "Can you do something for us?"  The cop is black. Terry LaCroix's face is always registering a blank, almost frightening unconcern, until she senses she might be seen as vulnerable or not worthy, as when she's asking for help from the cop friend.  Her other expressions range from fury and disdain to plain old everyday "I need to get this," while putting her I-phone up to her ear.  In short, she's an American classic, ignoring history while also trying to find a way to escape it, and yet in King's performance you feel a kind of thermodynamic exhaustion taking place right before your eyes.  She's tired of all she has to do to be herself, and yet she can't stop the act; she's wearing a mask that's smothering her but she can't remove it. 
 
The same can be said of Connor Jessup's Taylor, the boy who is sexually assaulted, and Joey Pollari's Eric, the boy accused of assaulting him.  They both are running from the way they have to perform themselves, seeking a way out of the codes and regulations encircling behavior, class, desire -- but they don't have anything to replace it with, to run to.  This sense of hopelessness permeates all of American Crime, and it's refreshing in a way you can't describe except that while you watch it you feel reality's pulse, tragedy's electricity.  There aren't really any happy moments in the show: dinners are always scraping plates and forks dropping to the floor, school a shadowy collection of hallways and facelessness, homes lit with living room lamps and TV light, faces lit with phone-light, everything in a sort of 21st Century gloom.  It's not show-offy though, this gloom -- it's bracing and for real, artificial enough to have a sense of style that saves the whole enterprise from being high-dungeon or campy or worked-up.  
 
American Crime creates a raw-nerve labyrinth of class and sex and gender and bias and hate and love and phoniness that encapsulates America in a way other shows can't.  You get lost in all the atmospheric complications, and yet the narrative momentum and dread pull you through.  There's no easy way to explain it, no easy way out.  This is heady stuff, extremely watchable somehow, all of it arranged into a high-stakes one-hour drama with an eye toward not letting anybody off the hook.  American Crime finds a beautiful and strange ambiguity in all that furor and blame.