ABC's 'American Crime': Much the same, and totally different

"American Crime" emerged as the jewel in ABC's drama slate last season. The provocative series from Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley ("12 Years A Slave") about the cultural eruptions surrounding a brutal attack on a suburban white couple was praised by critics for its edgy subject matter and scored several Emmy nominations, including a win for supporting actress Regina King.

The drama also was applauded for its high-caliber performances by a cast that combined seasoned veterans such as Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman and Lili Taylor with several newcomers, including Elvis Nolasco and Richard Cabral.

Those performers have returned for the second season of "American Crime," which premiered last week, playing totally different characters from last season. This time around, the series is tackling a different premise and crime — the sexual assault of a high school student by members of the basketball team.

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Ridley said he felt "humbled" to be back and thanked ABC for supporting what he called "a grand experiment." Touchy subjects of racial tension are rarely probed on broadcast network dramas.

During a presentation at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, executive producer Michael J. McDonald said he and Ridley wanted to explore tough issues that they did not get to examine last year, such as class and the education system.

"The disparity in the education system was very important for us to talk about. John comes from a family of educators," McDonald said.

Ridley said the show offered him a fresh opportunity to explore topics dear to him, including the differences between private and public education. He said it was very important to work with much of the cast from last season, whom he continually praised for their work.

"We did fully exploit those characters from last year, and we can build new characters and make them more unified this season," Ridley said.

Many of the cast members are playing opposite types from their roles last year. Hutton, for example, played a troubled father who was estranged from his wife and grown children, including his son, who was killed in the attack. In the new season, he plays a dedicated basketball coach.

King played a militant Muslim woman who felt she was alone in her struggle for justice. In the new season, she plays a well-to-do wife and mother who is devastated when she learns her teenage son is involved in the sexual assault.

Hutton called the experience of reuniting with performers from last season like being in a repertory company.

"It just feels incredible to be back," Hutton said. "It's a dream job, especially when going through the experience with the same people. It doesn't get better than this."

Taylor, who plays the mother of the young victim, said of the reunion in the new installment: "This is really a win-win for us. It feels deeper, much more layered."

Also in the cast in Andre Benjamin, who plays King's husband. Benjamin, who is part of the award-winning rap group OutKast, said he has an 18-year-old son and is experiencing many of the father-son issues explored in "American Crime." "This show is very much parallel to where we are in his life. We're going through it right now."

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