American Crime: No Moral Clarity in the Modern World

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Credit: ABC

American Crime has recently finished its three season run as a premier socially conscious television program. Tackling concerns such as prostitution, rape, racism, and mistreatment of undocumented workers, the show provides an even look at each side while never losing sight of the real human struggle underlying the issues. In doing so, it serves as one of television’s most timely and compelling shows which runs counter to the escapist trends which lie at the heart of many other programs.

One of American Crime’s primary techniques utilized to represent real world issues is its crafting of complex and dynamic characters. Few characters remain static throughout each season, and the complete biography and history of each character is gradually revealed and developed over the course of many episodes. However, these character portraits don’t unfold linearly like figures in a mystery novel. Instead they progress haphazardly, often leading to uncomfortable realizations for the show’s principal cast.

The third season focuses on a social worker who becomes increasingly disillusioned as forces on all sides of the system seemingly lose sight of their primary goal of helping the vulnerable. Eventually, she decides to take her own interests into account and commit fraud in order to land a larger paycheck. 

While the end of her character arc suggests that idealism can’t endure in a cynical world, the show may also be indicating that selfish motivations factored into her choices all along. Never settling for a clear cut answer, American Crime portrays fully realized characters that demonstrate a level of psychological complexity reminiscent of real people.

This complexity also extends to the social issues which anchor each season. Although phenomena such as underage prostitution and the mistreatment of undocumented workers are clearly portrayed negatively, the show always offers a countervailing view of the people who are involved in those same situations.

Whether it’s a farm or factory owner struggling with keeping costs down in a globalized market or a former prostitute lamenting her current lack of agency, each character is given a nuanced voice allowing viewers to understand and identify with their choices. These choices frequently revolve around self-interest and self-perception as opposed to being driven by any moral calculus.

It is this attention to the more pragmatic elements of human behavior which resonates most with me. By establishing self-interest as the basis for many of the characters’ actions, American Crime transcends any particular issue and provides a chilling assessment of what motivates people to harm others.

Season two offers the greatest example of the moral ambiguities that the show excels in focusing in on. The season revolves around one student accusing another of rape and the ensuing repercussions that upend their community. Both students equally believe their interpretation of the events, and the show doesn’t attempt to present one side as more sympathetic.

While I personally found one of their claims to be more compelling, the show doesn’t allow viewers to write off either one. Months after initially watching the episode, the show’s treatment of competing claims in a case of rape have made me question my notions of consent and what constitutes assault. 

Moreover, regardless of objective right and wrong, American Crime makes a strong case that all a person can rely on is his or her judgment on which an external assignment of moral weight has no bearing.

Ultimately, each student is exploited by the school culminating in one boy committing murder and the other quitting the basketball team. Although the gap between the appropriateness of these reactions is obvious, the show presents them both as natural consequences of the characters’ experiences further solidifying its themes of moral uncertainty. Tellingly, when the shooter confronts his mother he demands that they discuss the closure he received from his actions and not the problematic nature of his decision to end a life.

American Crime succeeds in crafting a world where ethical norms can’t bridge the gap between vastly distinct individuals, granting viewers a bleak take on modern life. What stuck with me most was the total lack of resolution that the show provides. Most T.V. shows point you towards some conclusion, but American Crime just leaves you to ponder the near infinite responses to everyday tragedy.

What are your thoughts on American Crime? Let me know in the comments.

Yosef is from Teaneck, New Jersey and studied literature at Yeshiva University. In his free time he enjoys watching movies (particularly international films) and reading manga and comics. He also peruses various news sites to stay up to date on current events. He can be found on Facebook
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© GONG, Inc. All rights reserved
© GONG, Inc. All rights reserved