Michael McDonald Q&A: ‘American Crime’ producer
“We were shocked, surprised and enthused” says producer Michael McDonald as we chat via webcam (watch above) about the creative freedom that ABC gave him and Oscar-winning creator John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) for the acclaimed second season of “American Crime.” He readily admits that although the network execs were apprehensive about some of the more risky subject matter explored in season two, they were very supportive about “looking at youth in America today and the roles of violence and sex and crime and also social media and the lack of support from the institutions around them.”
After focusing on violence, racism and bigotry in the first season of “American Crime,” McDonald and Ridley shifted to a completely new story and set of characters (many of whom are played by returning cast members) to shine a light on school bullying, privilege, socio-economic disadvantage, gender, sexual orientation and sexual violence.
This season was set at fictional prestigious private high school where a troubled teen (Connor Jessup) alleges he was drugged and raped while attending a party thrown by the school’s basketball team co-captains (Joey Pollari and Trevor Jackson). The story unfolds over 10 episodes from the perspectives of the school’s headmaster (Felicity Huffman), basketball coach (Timothy Hutton), the victim’s mother (Lili Taylor), fellow students and their families.
The concept came out of various ideas that the writers had about exploring issues that affect younger people, like education, prejudice against LGBT students and campus sexual assault. These started to crystallize when the writers decided that the story would focus on a male rather than a female victim. “For some reason, these assaults seemed to revolve around sports,” McDonald explains. “These hyper-masculine worlds of sports and the armed services and boarding schools. That’s where there seemed to be these sexual assaults between men and we asked why is that? Is it because of isolation or because sex is used as a domination” he asks. “We felt that there was something there that had not really been discussed or talked about in a larger format like we have available to us.”
“American Crime” earned four Emmy nominations this year: Best Limited Series, two nominations in the Best Movie/Mini Actress category (Huffman and Taylor) and last year’s winner Regina King returning to the Emmys in the Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actress race. Although down from the impressive 10 Emmy nominations the show reaped last year, McDonald was thrilled with the result, acknowledging that this year the competition for nominations was fierce. “We’re so excited,” he admits. “The competition got a lot stiffer this year and that we got to be in that competition is a real honor. I wish they would cut one in half and give one to Felicity and one to Lili. That would make me happy!”
McDonald is also looking forward to the show’s upcoming third season, with Huffman, Hutton, King, Taylor and previous Emmy nominee Richard Cabral already announced as returning. Having just come back from scouting for locations, McDonald says season three will focus on “the invisible economy and how many people in America are living in close to modern day slavery.”
“We’re excited to explore the new South,” he reveals. “We shy away from stereotypes. We’ve explored California and we’ve explored the Midwest. But racism is not really a big part of this season, it’s more about economic disparity and the idea that there is this sub-group in this country, millions and millions of people, that are living in slavery-like conditions,” he explains. “Where you’re barely making enough money to live and you’re indebted to your bosses or the banks. Then you are not surviving and there’s this huge disparity in wealth. The continued use of forced labor in agriculture, domestics, janitorial, the food industry. That’s a world that John and I really want to explore.”