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American Crime's brilliant direction, explained in 5 shots

This ABC drama is somber, striking, and essential television.

American Crime
Taylor (Connor Jessup) and his mom (Lili Taylor) prepare for the worst on American Crime.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Everything that makes the ABC drama American Crime special is on display in the fifth episode of the show's second season.

Taylor, a teenage boy, is accusing fellow student Eric, a basketball star at their high school, of sexual assault. The two were planning to hook up at a party, but things quickly went south. Taylor was raped; he's very firm on that point. But his preference for rough sex — and the fact that he and Eric were planning to meet up and sleep together — has resulted in nobody taking him seriously.

And the way director Rachel Morrison shoots the boys' individual interviews with the police subtly forces you into the mindset of someone who's disinclined to believe an accusation of sexual assault.

Both are filmed head on, but Taylor, who's still angry, still emotionally hollowed out by what happened to him, can't seem to sit still. He keeps shifting into and out of the frame, so we're sometimes only seeing portions of his face. And even when he's in the frame, he can't look at the camera.

Taylor on American Crime.
Taylor can't face the camera.

Eric, meanwhile, sits motionless, facing the camera (which stands in as a proxy for the police). Because he's defensive, it's easier for him to stand his ground and say whatever he needs to say.

Eric talks to the police.
Eric mostly holds still.

American Crime isn't perfect. But it's doing something TV has increasingly given up on: telling stories about people whose lives have been torn apart by the very issues we hear about in the news and find ourselves discussing, day after day.

American Crime overcomes its sprawl by insisting everything is connected

American Crime
Eric (Joey Pollari) tries to resume his old life.

If American Crime has an Achilles' heel, it's a desire to be everything to everyone. While the show's second season (which concluded on Wednesday, March 9) was more focused than its first (each season tells a different story featuring different characters), it still tried to touch on everything from campus sexual assault to school shootings to private information and data being distributed for public consumption via hackers.

But the reason American Crime overcomes its potential lumpiness is that it insists all these issues are connected. A teenager struggling with his sexuality might be preyed upon — and a broken legal system where no one wants to do anything to protect him might cause him to become violent. And frustrations over such a situation might lead his mother to seek any means of recourse she can find, thus turning to a hacker.

Everything spirals outward from one incident that ripped a young man's life in two. Eventually, the lives of almost every character on the series are destroyed, simply because they didn't know how to best respond to help him move past his trauma.

Writers have a tendency — in both journalism and in fiction — to put social issues into convenient little packages, pretending they don't touch each other. But people are more complicated than that, and it's impossible to draw the line between where you stop caring about one thing and start caring about another.

American Crime's filmmaking illustrates this concept with evocative imagery that you understand in your gut. Consider, for instance, this long shot from the end of episode five, encompassing a bunch of teachers and parents at the private Leyland Academy, which is the setting for much of season two. (I've sped it up for the following GIF.)

American Crime.
Everybody watches the students' performance.

Or take this shot from the end of episode seven (a masterful hour written and directed by series creator John Ridley), in which a mother seeks out her son, who's just done something tragic, and slowly shuts out everything else. (Again, I've sped it up.)

American Crime
A mother seeks out her son.

Because American Crime's primary method of storytelling is visual, it gets away with throwing so many ingredients into its pot. The show promotes thoughtfulness, but it also works on an almost intensely visceral level. You feel it before you understand it sometimes. It wants to get under your skin.

Throughout season two, there are constant glimpses of welcome touch in extreme close-up — lovers briefly meeting, or dancers supporting each other, or basketball players pushing off each other as part of a scrimmage. It's a nifty way to suggest that the lines between what we want and what we don't can be smudged so, so easily — and that once they are, it's our collective responsibility to stop what's happening and comfort the afflicted.

That unusual visual grammar recurs in other ways. There are many scenes where two people are talking, yet the camera only focuses on one of them (especially if the person in focus is hearing something particularly difficult). Sometimes the audio fuzzes out, to represent someone's mind struggling to process what he's being told. And instead of simply bleeping words like "fuck" and "shit," the series makes the atypical call to black out the screen entirely for a fraction of a second, jarring you out of your complacency and forcing you to keep paying attention.

Evy swears.
Notice the quick black screen that comes up when Evy swears.

American Crime ventures outside of TV's bubble

But there's something else about American Crime that's remarkable: It's telling stories about parts of the country that are rarely seen on television.

Season one took place in the kind of industrial/agricultural California city that rarely works its way into fiction. Season two is set in the Indianapolis area, a place where it's much harder for a teenage boy to come to terms with his sexuality, no matter what it is, and where even adult men who are attracted to other men occasionally have to hide those feelings to maintain the veneer of respectability.

American Crime has always embraced diversity, both in front of and behind the camera. But it's particularly interested in economic diversity, in stories that reflect the many different class strata of American life. Taylor comes from a working-class family. He's attending Leyland on a scholarship, and that sets him apart from his peers. Meanwhile, another teenager, Kevin, comes from an upper-class black family — but his economic status doesn't erase the fact of his race.

American Crime
Taylor (Connor Jessup) comes from a working-class family.

American television used to tackle social issues in its "prestige programming" as a matter of course. The sitcoms of the 1970s (Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, etc.) and the workplace dramas of the 1980s (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, etc.) both earned critical approval through their willingness to address the same topics people were talking about around dinner tables and office water coolers.

But that trend has largely gone out of vogue in recent decades, due to two main factors: 1) TV's increasing disinterest in the experience of anyone other than upper-class white people (who are largely protected from many of today's most pressing societal problems, barring extraordinary circumstances), and 2) the huge number of shows that've tried to tell stories about these issues in clumsy fashion (see also: the Very Special Episode).

But American Crime is part of a recent wave of network shows (see also: the sitcoms Mom and The Carmichael Show) trying to bring back this noble goal. Season one had its hiccups, but season two was superb, a thoughtful, beautifully told story that will make you angry, sad, and frustrated all at once. To its credit, it does so in a way that leaves you feeling like you better understand the stakes inherent to these stories.

And if it sometimes bites off more than it can chew, well, that's part of Ridley's plan. American Crime is not about how some people are affected by the horrible things that happen every day. It's about how we're all affected by them, no matter how well insulated we may be.

American Crime is available for digital download. Select episodes are available at Hulu.