As the inaugural season of American Crime Story draws to an end, most viewers are probably thinking "What's next?" A good question, as America has a slough of seedy and sensational crimes to choose from. The People vs. O.J. Simpson was an obvious but brilliant choice to introduce us to and set the tone of the series.
But it seems like that tone is going to change next season. In January, about a month before the series premiered, it was announced that the next season would cover Hurricane Katrina. This isn't the direction that I saw the series going, and I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed. The argument made by the creators is that they wanted to focus on substantial crimes that effected America. There is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina was a substantial event in recent American history. Crimes were committed, whether at the government or individual level, but the sheer scope of these crimes to me is too broad to be contained in 10 episodes of a series.
This first season of American Crime Story has been phenomenal. I never had any real doubts, as Ryan Murphy and the cast he assembled are some of the best players in film and television today, so it comes as no surprise that this series is a hit, although a controversial one. Why shouldn't it be? The series has reignited the debate of the 22 year old case with an uncanny deftness. If you have only a passing familiarity or were too young to really remember the case, some of the details of the case are jaw-dropping. The real triumph of the show is how timely it is. Whether it's the racial issues of the jury selection or the blatant sexism the media subjected Marcia Clarke to at the time provides a mirror to which we should judge ourselves. One of the benefits of this series is that, although recent, it is still a period piece, and my favorite aspect of period pieces is that it shows us how much we as society have changed, and more importantly how we've yet to change.
That being said, I'm not as enthusiastic about the upcoming second season of the series. If things do continue as planned, I have to say I have several issues with the direction being taken.
American Crime Story Should Be About a Crime
The shortcomings of the United States government during the events of Hurricane Katrina are without question. The question arises, though, is what specific crime was committed?. It's American Crime Story, not American Crimes Story. Like the O.J case, it too is marred with controversy as an event in US history, but the volume of the atrocities is too great to hold the focus of just one season. I hate to admit it, but I appreciate the long-form procedural tone that this series has fostered. It follows the neatly executed formula perfected by shows like Law and Order and NYPD Blue. Crime->Suspect->Trial->Verdict. Hurricane Katrina striking wasn't a crime, it was an event. Crimes spawned from the event, but there is no flawed human catalyst.
We Already Have a Katrina Series
Though I have personally not seen it, the HBO series Treme is said to be one of the best pieces of film or television to depict the event and it's aftermath. Helmed by David Simon of The Wire and the award-winning Show Me A Hero fame, there are 38 episodes dedicated to the personal tragedies that erupted. Though not based on a true story, it has the length to cover it, whereas American Crime Story would be able to dedicate only 10-13 episodes.
There Are Other Stories to Tell
With the sensationalist media that the murders of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman gave birth to, we have a plethora of American Crimes that have yet to be exposed. True, there is always the clunky Lifetime Movie that spawns from these cases, but FX has the prowess to deliver the goods and captivate us with these stories.
In terms of media sensation and the horrific nature of the crime, the murder of JonBenet Ramsay was America's successor to the O.J. Simpson trial. The suspicion, the affluence, the age of the victim, all of this makes for compelling storytelling. As I write this it feels exploitative to list off the attributes of this tragedy in pursuit of a television series, but this medium has the opportunity to revisit and make it relevant again.
Political television is huge right now. Whether you're voting for Frank Underwood or Selina Meyer or Fitzgerald Grant III, every TV genre and network is lousy with Beltway influence. The murder of Chandra Levy plays out like a primetime political drama. A politician's mistress, a missing person's search, mishandling of evidence, this has all the potential of a bestseller. Eight years after the discovery of the body, authorities arrested and eventually convicted and illegal immigrant from El Salvador. This series has already scrutinized race relations in the U.S. (especially in light of the Trayvon Martin case) and this could be an opportunity to tackle U.S. immigration issues.
The Casey Anthony, or "Tot Mom," as the eminent Nancy Grace christened it, case brought media sensationalism born of O.J. into the 21st century. If the O.J. case was Intro to Communications, Casey Anthony was a graduate course. Media had learned the ropes in the 22 years or so since O.J. and executed the 24-hour, Nancy Grace dictated bombardment of coverage with razor-sharp perfection. The questions that remain unanswered and the unsavory nature of the victim's mother makes this a positively irresistable study of American journalism and crime.
These stories have a common thread with the O.J. Simpson trial: They remain unsolved. That fact in and of itself makes for a thought-provoking story. Beyond the crime itself, if this season of the series has done one thing it has shed a damning light on news media and the American public. Again, these are tragedies that were reduced to ratings battles. Hurricane Katrina was a national event, affecting millions. The nature of this show needs to be a reflexive one, showcasing the fact that "if it bleeds it leads" of American media today and how the public's lust for these stories cannot be sated. There is more to learn from this series than police failures, celebrity worship and jury selection misgivings. This show has the potential to makes us realize who we are as a media-consuming society, and the result is not pretty.