When American Crime executive producers John Ridley and Michael McDonald joined the Season 2 cast of their brilliant ABC anthology series at the Television Critics Association winter press tour yesterday, they shared a common message. All were fully intent on honoring the remarkable merits of Season 1 and its characters — three Golden Globe nominations, an Emmy win (Regina King’s supporting actress nod) and nine other Emmy noms among them — while embracing a new story, new characters and a fresh opportunity to send another powerful social message.
Season 2, which premiered Wednesday, examines the fallout of a possible sexual assault (captured, of course, in cellphone photos) at a tony Midwest high school, delving fearlessly into issues of sexual identity and economic and racial disparities in the American school system. “There is no system that is more fundamentally important to all of us,” said Ridley, whose wife is a school board member and whose mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law are all teachers. “We are all affected by it. I’m very thankful that we got to examine the educational system in some degree here, the dualities between public and private school — and also dispelling some beliefs that one or the other is more important or more significant to our society.”
A host of Season 1 cast members — Felicity Hoffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Elvis Nolasco, Lili Taylor and Richard Cabral — return in new roles that Ridley says were carefully crafted to assure that their original characters did not lose potency for American Crime fans.
“I don’t know that I would have ever assumed that I would have had an opportunity to work with any of these individuals in the first place, so it was an easy call to make invitations and say, ‘What can we try to do again this year? What characters can we play? What did we not talk about?’” Ridley explained. “Particularly with Felicity, with Timothy and with Regina, in my opinion — and it’s impossible to be objective — the characters they played last year were just singular and there was a desire to make sure that they were different in many ways.”
Hence, where Huffman’s numbed and angry Barb in Season 1 was hardened by grief, Huffman’s beleaguered school administrator Leslie Graham, Ridley says, has warmth and “consciousness.” Timothy Hutton’, Season 1’s troubled dad Russ, is now Dan Sullivan, a committed athletic coach and family man (Hope Davis plays his wife). Regina King goes maternal as Terri LaCroix, proud matriarch of a tight-knit family. Lili Taylor, last year’s savvy victim’s rights advocate, is now a stunned mother completely overwhelmed in the pursuit of justice when the legitimacy of the crime itself is in doubt. And after playing troubled characters in Season 1, Nolasco and Cabral embody noble souls.
Cabral sported a distinctly un-Hector-like, prep-school look during the panel, but couldn’t say much about his Season 2 character other than he’s “cleaned up” and comes into the story midway through the season. Ridley helped him ease reporters’ curiosity.
“I will say this without giving away too much,” Ridley offered. “What Richard did in his progression last year playing Hector, it was certainly amazing. But as we got to know him, there was so much more to him than even we were able to explore in that first season, and it was a blessing to be able to bring back a character who was completely different. I think you can see much of that here in his look, but also what he was about, where he stands in terms of trying to get social justice, how he navigates a system, the justice system differently than how he was inserted into it last year.”
Hutton equated the American Crime experience to being part of a supremely able repertory company — a sentiment Huffman echoed. “To work with the same talented people the second year, you have a level of trust that you didn’t the first,” she said. “I think John’s stories, to do justice to them, you don’t want the audience to have a residue of what you’ve done before. You want to see that story whole and against a wide sky.”
“We were graced with individuals all the way around who had an ability to render completely different types of characters,” said Ridley. “The thing that excited us was that last year we could fully exploit the characters as far as we felt we could go with the storytelling and then begin again and build these characters, perhaps more in a unified way this year than we did last year.”
Outkast’s Andre Benjamin signs on in Season 2 as King’s husband, Michael, a proud and affluent man whose star athlete son Kevin (Trevor Jackson) is central to the scandal. Benjamin, a longtime Ridley friend and collaborator, said he welcomed the chance to explore — and challenge — ideas of race and affluence.
“Me and Regina were talking about this earlier — we come from a totally different generation,” Benjamin explained. “And as far as raising a young man, I have an 18-year-old son, and it’s just so funny that this show is kind parallel to where I am right now in life. … it hit home, because I’m going through it right now. I actually have a kid right now in private school. And I think as a black family, a family that’s well-to-do, you have double challenges, because you’re black and you’re privileged, but at the same time, you’re a target, because some people may feel like you may not deserve it. And me being an entertainer — and not just an entertainer; I’m a rapper — I take my kid to private school now and I may be looked at a little bit different because they may feel like I may not have earned it.”
“When you look at our family, there’s the way Terri and Michael were raised is much and the things that they’ve seen and they were exposed to are much different from the things that our son was exposed to, so there’s some generational differences that are taking place,” King added. “And because we are privileged, there are things that he’s not aware of, that Kevin is not aware of, and because he’s not experiencing them, but they do still exist. And there’s that you will see there’s that moment where that kind of comes to a head.”
As for Taylor, the working-class boy in those troubling pictures who isn’t quite sure what happened at a party where things went so, so wrong, actor Connor Jessup said Ridley told him little more than that there is at least some truth in Taylor’s version of events. “I got to lean pretty heavily on Taylor’s confusion and his broken memory of what happens,” Jessup said. “What component is truthful, you don’t really find out until much later, if at all.”
“One of the things that we really wanted to bring into our storytelling this year, because we were talking about sexual assault — we did not want to be monotone in saying that touch and contact were always exclusively of the realm and domain of being inappropriate,” Ridley noted. “We wanted to try to bring in moments of contact that were absolutely beautiful. …We certainly are dealing with athletics in spaces where people being in contact is beautiful. In terms of storytelling, it really is elements of touch this year — when it’s right, when it’s wrong and what are those boundaries?”
So can there ever be an absolute version of the truth when youthful boundaries are so fluid and memories so untenable?
“A lot of it is really about what people see when things are put in front of them,” Ridley said. “Sometimes all the evidence in the world can be put in front of people and — as a line that was delivered in the piece that you saw — how many people have to say that it’s rape before we consider it to be rape? Unfortunately, these things are happening right now. This is not about people going back and saying — with the picture in particular — did this happen or did it not happen. It really is about singular truths. Everybody here, their characters absolutely believe the stories that they’re telling. But that doesn’t mean that it is the truth.”
New episodes of American Crime air Wednesdays at 10/9CT on ABC.