Talk about cliffhangers …
Nothing was settled by the final episode of the second season of John Ridley’s “American Crime” on Wednesday – least of all why a mass TV audience should care.
I cared. But the mass TV audience didn’t – and never really did for the full run of the show on ABC. The ratings for the show’s first season were anemic. The ratings for the show in its second season were anemic and fighting off terrible flu all season besides.
If all you care about are metrics – those precious numbers by which American democracy has navigated since the beginning no matter how grotesque and lost it becomes when, as Alexis de Toqueville said, an anti-intellectual majority tyrannizes everyone else – “American Crime” was a flop. All it had going for it were excellence, excited critics and award nominations.
As H.L. Mencken put it, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. The opposite is definitely one avenue to poverty, often enough.
It is a shock, therefore, when a network did what ABC did after the first less-than-stellar ratings season of “American Crime”: renewed it.
Another renewal after Wednesday’s triple cliffhanger would be close to a TV miracle – something skeptics will share with their grandchildren when they ask if anyone in America cares about quality at all.
Nothing was concluded. We didn’t find out if teenager Taylor was really raped at that party or if he just said he was. We didn’t find out whether he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, thereby getting a 10-year sentence. We didn’t find out whether his alleged rapist Eric (who denied it) went off with his usual assignation after the final scene.
Most importantly, we didn’t know whether ABC wanted the show back or, if it did, whether John Ridley would run it again. He called it exhausting to keep “American Crime” going.
I don’t doubt it for a second.
But as I watched the finale, I was hit with the thought that this may be the most unusual and estheticized program I have ever seen on an American broadcast network of that sort that even cats and dogs can watch. (All they have to know is how to turn it on and change channels with their paws.)
In that episode, written by veteran TV writer Diana Son (“Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “Blue Bloods”) we were immersed in a startling truth: “American Crime” has given us novels for television.
Sunday’s premium TV will give us what is cracked up to be the most authentic version of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” on A&E. But if you were looking for original network TV drama with all the social reality and ambiguity of a very good novel, “American Crime” was it. No other network TV show need apply.
It reminded me of AMC’s “The Killing,” which kept giving us an ever larger portrait of corruption in the Pacific Northwest while trying to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. By that series’ end, it was obvious that things had become ridiculously attenuated beyond credibility by the simple fact of renewing a TV series that had shot its narrative wad in the first season.
But “American Crime” wasn’t just smarter; it did something both brilliant and, when you thought about it, unprecedented.
“True Detective” on HBO gave us something fresh and startling: different stories every season with different casts to go along with them.
“American Crime,” though, gave us something else: completely different stories for each of its two seasons with the same casts taking completely different roles.
In the first season, Felicity Huffman played a simple and pitiless monomaniac determined to bring her son’s killer to justice, no matter what.
In the season just past, that role went to Lily Taylor, mother of the supposed rape and beating victim. Huffman played the headmistress of a very expensive private school whose skill at silken public relations and vile backroom maneuvering were about equal. I can’t remember when television has given us a creepier and emptier portrait of a slick academic powermonger than Huffman.
In the first season of “American Crime,” Timothy Hutton played Huffman’s ineffectual ex-husband trying vainly to get his machine-like ex-wife to find humanity within.
In the second season, Hutton played a basketball coach at the private school who was the headmistress’ antagonist until undercut by his own daughter’s drug-dealing.
As I watched this season’s finale, I was astounded by the “nuances” and ambiguities of the show.
I had lost faith at the beginning of this season when it seemed to be going in one direction before we found out that it was going in four other directions too, all combined with a complexity amazing in a dumb down era.
Can any actual broadcast network afford to endorse such creative behavior?
Meanwhile, old shoe broadcast TV has “The Good Wife,” whose run ends May 8. And the season finale of “How to Get Away With Murder” on Thursday.
We can watch those with our dogs and cats. But it’s not the same thing as “American Crime.”
Not even close.