“American Crime” earned Emmy nominations in all four movie/miniseries acting categories last year: for lead actors Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton, and supporting players Regina King and Richard Cabral, with King becoming the show’s sole winner. All four returned for season two and could earn nominations yet again, but I do hope the TV academy remembers to save a spot for another returning cast member, Lili Taylor.
Taylor had a limited role in the first season, playing a victim’s advocate who reinforces some of the prejudices of Barb Hanlon (Huffman), the mother a slain war veteran. This season, however, Taylor was front and center as Anne Blaine, the mother of a teenage boy who was allegedly drugged and raped at a party.
Parents defending their children was a recurring theme throughout this season of “American Crime,” but Anne Blaine stands out because her advocacy is unique. Her son is secretly gay, which in itself is a challenging reality for some parents to face, but when she discovers that he was the victim of sexual violence, she believes him and fights for him, without hesitation.
Writer Amanda Spears rightly lauded Connor Jessup‘s performance as Anne’s victimized son (read that Emmy spotlight here), but if he’s the heart of season two then Anne is the backbone. False rape reports are far less common than they’re perceived to be, and male victims are stigmatized in a different way because sexual assault is usually viewed as a crime against women, so the fact that Anne believes him, accepts him, and fights on his behalf is already a heroic act.
But if Anne were merely a hero, that would be overly simplistic – just the personification of a public service announcement. What makes her a great character is the level of nuance and complexity developed through the season by the writers and directors, and especially by Taylor.
At one point Anne’s history of mental health issues are leaked to the public. Those issues have already shaped her uneasy relationship with her son, whom she had to temporarily leave when he was a child to seek treatment. So in a way, her defense of him now is an act of penance for her inability to be there for him once before. But that guilt also clouds her judgment. She is so determined to show her commitment to him that she pursues justice on his behalf before he’s ready to decide that for himself; her dogged support steamrolls over him.
Anne and her son never quite get on the same page, which makes Taylor and Jessup’s scenes together some of the best of the season, and the saddest. Taylor and Jessup convey the vast gulf between them even when they’re face to face. They’re both trying to exorcise personal demons, so while her son is the primary victim in the story, Taylor plays Anne with a face racked with her own sense of loss and regret that are only partly related to her son’s current plight. It’s more about her fear of failure as a mother, and seeing the weight of that underlining every scene is heartbreaking.
That also fuels Taylor’s very best scene of the season. Learning of her son’s involvement in a shooting while at working a waitressing job, she cycles through fear, dread and indecision: Does she protect her son? Does she turn him in? You can see her torn between blind loyalty and moral responsibility and above all the instinct to protect, which leads to perhaps the only moment of the season where they truly come together as mother and son. Sitting together awaiting the arrival of the police, there’s nothing to be done but for her to comfort him.
Taylor is already a two-time Emmy-nominee, with guest-acting bids for “The X-Files” (1998) and “Six Feet Under” (2002). This year she’s worthy of a win.
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Photo: “American Crime” (ABC)