Sometimes it feels like TV is at war with itself. Half of the dial are shows that look back, explicitly or implicitly, to a simpler past that’s been forgotten; so far this year, The X-Files and Fuller House have been dismaying not just for their obviously poor quality but for their refusal to acknowledge that any time has passed since the 1990s. And then there are shows that forcefully assert how contemporary they are—ones that deal frankly and openly with social issues in a way that feels pointed and sometimes even painful.
American Crime, the ABC drama that wraps up its second season Wednesday night, is the best example yet of the latter show. Its many strengths (and few weaknesses) stem from its willingness to go to excesses in depicting every imaginable social ill. It’s the perfect antidote to nostalgia: A show that both aggressively pursues new angles on life as lived today, and whose oddity makes it unlike just about anything you’ve seen before.
Over the course of this season, a case of a young man’s alleged rape at a basketball-team party hasn’t just extended, insidiously, into the lives of every member of an elite Indiana private-school community. It’s become a case of cybercrime, drug-dealing, and murder, one that implicates random outsiders as well as school administrators, students, and parents. Felicity Huffman and Regina King, playing characters mutually obsessed with control (as, respectively, a head of school and the stern parent of a basketball star), are exemplary; so, too, is the young actor Joey Pollari, playing a high-school athlete whose homosexuality has no safe outlet.
Not every step American Crime has taken in season 2 has been successful. In moments, it reverts to resembling its high-minded but less bearable first season, whose hectoring tone got across the lesson that social ills were everyone’s fault a little too well. An episode in which real-life survivors of shootings gave interviews to camera put me off the show for a while; the earnestness was appreciated, but it was, as with so much else here, so much. Similarly, one episode’s concluding sequence, in which students put on a wildly provocative modern-dance as Huffman watched grimly, felt both unrealistic and a signal of the show’s overzealous ambition.
But considering what else is out there, a surfeit of ambition is no sin; American Crime’s dedication to perpetually upping the ante (one shared with its soapier ABC neighbors) made it a tough binge but a great watch. The lack of realism is also acceptable for the viewer willing to treat American Crime not as document of what life is really like in America but as a dramatic perpetual-motion machine, one that derives the energy to take on more and more causes from its own whirrings. If the show’s season ran for 20 episodes, it’d be tough to take, and it also might dramatize just about every human experience possible to have in 2016.
As drama, that works better than yet another reboot, whether exhuming Mulder and Scully or just making another version of NCIS (as ABC’s management is reportedly eager to do). It’s an impulse shared by The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX, which has found in a 1995 murder trial fresh insights about race and gender, or, in the world of comedy, by black-ish and The Carmichael Show.
Both those comedies, NBC’s Carmichael especially, can feel a bit proud of themselves for being willing to say what no one else on TV would dare. But both, too, deserve applause and attention for calling attention to discussions at the center of American life: black-ish’s recent episode “Hope,” in which family members debate what to do over a (fictional) case of miscarried justice and police brutality, ends with our central characters hitting the streets to protest. The Carmichael Show’s “Fallen Heroes” episode, which airs Sunday, is a lengthy debate over whether or not fans, particularly black fans, should still support Bill Cosby after the multitude of allegations against him. It ends with each character running through their favorite Cosby Show moments—after all, even if you’re not going to support Cosby’s endeavors going forward, the old sitcom is okay, right?—before show lead Jerrod Carmichael flatly announces “Damn shame what he did to those women, though.” The manner, here, in which a debate is not so much resolved as put away, feels exactly right.
It spoils nothing to say that’s how American Crime wraps up its season too—not with a resolution but with an acknowledgment that the stakes the show has set up could never meaningfully get “resolved.” This is the reason—the reason beyond the issue of quality—that reboot shows like Fuller House or the 2016 X-Files are so dismaying. They’re not just bad: They’re rejecting what’s been the particular strength of television since it got started, to alternately ride the wave of social change and to push it forward. As Regina King says in the finale, “For people of color, there’s a world that we live in that’s different than yours—one you’ll never, ever experience.” That’s true of gay kids and computer hackers and misguided school administrators, too. But while we can never experience their lives, we can plunge into them momentarily thanks to a show whose commitment to going over-the-top ended up being perfectly pitched.