'American Crime' Season 2: TV Review

Ryan Green/ABC
Timothy Hutton of 'American Crime.'
Flawed but compelling and strongly acted.

John Ridley's provocative ABC drama gains confidence in its second season, which grapples with sexual violence, economic disparity and the educational system in Middle America.

Try to follow this: With the second season of ABC's American Crime, John Ridley has followed the increasingly popular anthology model in which he uses much of the same cast from the first season to tell an entirely new story, like what Ryan Murphy has done with American Horror Story. And the new run of American Crime is premiering on ABC on Jan. 6, nearly a month ahead of the premiere of Murphy's new anthology franchise, which is titled American Crime Story.

After the Emmy-winning first season looked at race, religion and the justice system in the wake of a murder in Northern California, American Crime has turned its attentions to sexual violence, economic disparity and the educational system in Indianapolis, Ind.

In the midst of an aggressive fund drive, a ritzy private school is rocked by accusations of rape leveled against members of the championship basketball team, coached by Revered Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton). Questions range from "How can a thing like this happen at a school like ours?" to "Men can be raped, too?" when it turns out that the victim is a young man (Connor Jessup's Taylor), a scholarship student and son of a single mom (Lili Taylor) with issues of her own. The charges turn basketball players and their families (including Regina King and Andre Benjamin as parents of one talented athlete) against each other. Meanwhile, a local public school, rife with tensions between African-American and Latino students, is just trying to educate its kids, with limited funding and an average class size of 35.

Read More: 'American Crime' Season 2 Trailer

Here's how I imagine a dinner conversation with John Ridley goes: He starts by enthusiastically introducing a tawdry story that has been in the news for months, probably implying that you haven't heard of the story despite all of the coverage. Before you can get into depth on that case, Ridley has mentioned three unrelated news stories, an underreported bill awaiting vote in some state legislature, two studies from a recent sociological journal and a demographic study on population shifts in a major urban area. None of those tangents go quite as far as you might like, but when Ridley pivots the chat back to that original tawdry story, it suddenly has a satisfying depth. And you missed dessert.

Ridley has stuff on his mind and even if he often stumbles when it comes to unfolding a narrative in surprising ways, his gifts as a provocateur are unquestionable. Through four episodes, the new season of American Crime is another tantalizing dip into a dozen intellectual pots and once again, this is both enriching and frustrating, though more of the former than the latter.

There's something a little facile about Ridley's love of expectation-cheating irony — the racial minorities who are actually racist, the advocates for religious tolerance who are actually intolerant — and with the new season, he's doubling down on the sense of (feigned) shock or ignorance that sexual violence can be perpetrated on men, too. It's a few too many permutations of the worn-out riddle that culminates with "The doctor is a woman!" The role-reversal irony is so consistent that it becomes more surprising when Ridley doesn't resort to it, dampening some of the show's narrative twists.

But as glib as these expressions of thought can sometimes seem, nobody in American Crime comes by their ideology cheaply and Ridley is never condescending. He follows prejudices and preconceptions to their roots and honors character pragmatism in a way few shows, and even fewer shows on network TV, have time or interest for. That's how American Crime takes a plotline that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit could do in an hour and spreads it across a season — because only one of these two shows also makes time to unravel the implications of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. American Crime is a show that almost demands post-episode discussion, as different viewers are going to latch on to different buttons Ridley is pushing, from the aggressive underbelly of athletics to the changing standards of privacy and decency for today's teens.

Ridley's ambitions made me appreciate the existence of the first American Crime season even if the protracted wallow in misery had me tuning out before the end, losing my appetite for the nose-to-nose indignation and characters sliding down walls sobbing. Thus far, the new season feels like it has a better emotional balance, even if the stakes aren just as high. Maybe the structure is cleaner? Maybe the inherent sensationalism of the core case has Ridley approaching his talking points obliquely rather than head-on? Maybe there's a build that occurs in the first few episodes that the Modesto season couldn't do because it started out with death?

The last possibility is probably crucial, especially when it comes to the tremendous cast and their performances. The first season began with many or most of the characters already at their breaking point. Here, we know those breaking points are coming, but the actors get a longer fuse and the audience gets the pleasure — relatively speaking, given the subject matter — of trying to anticipate what those breaking points will be. The performances are all heading for a place of high intensity, but there's a greater dynamic range in watching them get there.

Read More: 'American Crime' and 'Secrets & Lies': TV Reviews

As with Murphy and his American Horror Story ensemble, Ridley has taken care to give his cast very different parts this time around and paired them up with different actors. Hutton, whose character last season was a wreck within the opening minutes, finds comfort in playing a leader in a tenuous position and he has a good rapport with Hope Davis, as Coach Dan's wife. The show's lone Emmy winner last year, King goes from passionate Muslim convert to a woman more capable of using institutional power to protect her upper class status and works well with the impressive Benjamin. Huffman, so good at alienating inherent sympathies last season as a grieving-but-prejudiced mom, actually gets to smile a couple times this season, and, as the prep school headmaster, gets to unfold her character's motivations slowly. With its high school backdrop, this American Crime installment relies heavily on largely unproven young actors, and in the early going there are no weak links, though Ridley's "gotcha" character twists often require actors to take an episode or two to settle in.

Following in his own first-season footsteps, Ridley wrote and directed the pilot before passing the baton to other directors, often with indie film backgrounds that continue the gritty aesthetic, which feels more relaxed and less affected than it did at times last year. Clement Virgo helmed the second episode and keep an eye out for Gregg Araki doing his first episodic TV work in the strong third hour.

ABC hailed American Crime as important TV before it even premiered last year and if its aspirations topped its execution then, it may be getting closer to realizing its potential now.

Studio: ABC Studios
Cast: Andre Benjamin, Timothy Hutton, 
Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Connor Jessup, Lili Taylor
Creator: John Ridley
Showrunner: John Ridley

Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC, beginning Jan. 6