In the most recent episode of "American Crime" (ABC), forty minutes of frank, uncomfortable closeups capped by a virtuosic, one-shot dance sequence, high school student Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) encounters a classmate, Luke (Taylor John Smith), in the restroom. With a long, intense stare reflected in the mirror, the moment is at first threatening, then alluring, as the characters nearly — but not quite — kiss. Later, in his bedroom, Taylor conjures up the meeting in his mind, and a frame dropped from the initial exchange reappears on screen, a potent expression of this season's nuanced, empathic understanding of sex and sexuality. It's but one of several formal coups that have made creator John Ridley's limited series, now in its second season, the best drama currently on television.
"We call these 'emotional cutaways,'" says editor Liza D. Espinas. "You strive to make the audience feel the characters more. The jump cuts, we do them so you can feel the franticness that the characters feel, so you can be a part of the world with them, instead of just being an audience member... You're kind of forced to watch closely."
Espinas, who worked with mentor and Oscar nominee Hank Corwin on "The Big Short" and is currently in post-production on an indie feature, "This Is Nowhere" (trailer below), didn't cut the episode in question, but she describes the distinctive editing of "American Crime" as its backbone — the element that, under Ridley's leadership, produces the series' consistently bracing style.
"It's not the same directors, so they don't always understand the tone of 'American Crime' like us editors do," Espinas, editor of three episodes this season, says of the series' "modernized edge." "I will flash forward or bring a shot back because the scene may have been shot more conventionally, and I need to add that edge back, that emotional power back."
As the current season explores Taylor's alleged sexual assault by members of his former prep school's championship-winning basketball team, with particular attention to the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation that influence each character's perception of events, it's often the decision not to cut that allows us to see through their eyes. When a nurse administers Taylor's rape kit; when his mother, Anne (Lili Taylor), is disappointed time and again by the failure of the police and the media to take her son's claims seriously; or when the prep school's headmaster (Felicity Huffman) and basketball coach (Timothy Hutton) attempt to avoid any potential legal ramifications for the institution itself, "American Crime" sustains its momentum by being as unflinching in style as it is in substance.
"I think there's a power in staying on somebody, especially when they're just listening," Espinas explains. "Conventional ways of editing make you want to go to the other person, but it's often more powerful to hold on our character... If we just played it straight, it wouldn't work, because it's a very dialogue-heavy show. And usually when we have action beats, John [Ridley] likes to downplay them anyway. Less is more."
Whether spliced with images of the series' cloistered environments — boardrooms, locker rooms, bedrooms — or allowed to unspool for minutes at a stretch, the sum of these delicate conversations is a riveting portrait of a seemingly idyllic school community whose many fractures are exposed by Taylor's allegations and the subsequent response. In this sense, "American Crime" is as immersive and as timely as "The Big Short," though subtler in its approach.
"There was so much crazy moving camera, which added to the intensity of the frustration, the angst, that was building," she says of Adam McKay's shaggy, Oscar-nominated comedy. "[McKay] wanted us to be bold and free... to keep it alive and real."
The film's slow burn, then, recreating the drama of the 2008 financial collapse in its last act, may not be so different from the ABC series after all — nor is "This Is Nowhere," says Espinas, a coming-of-age story shot in 14 days on a shoestring budget. All three turn away from convention in order to scrutinize their subjects without sermonizing. The film, which co-directors Jon Russell Cring and Heidi Elizabeth Philipsen plan to submit to festivals, has become something of a passion project for Espinas, who would return home from cutting her episodes of "American Crime" and work on "This Is Nowhere" into the wee hours.
As for the series, which enters the second half of its current season Wednesday, Espinas will only say that the upcoming episodes get "pretty crazy." But the aesthetic and narrative choices made by Ridley and company to this point, never losing the rich, rough texture of the individual in what might have been a didactic "social issues" drama, suggest that confidence is in order. The key, as Espinas notes, is in stripping away extraneous details to keep the personal and the political in balance.
"As an editor, the story's world is in your hands," she says. "But the actors and the story are driving the emotion, raw and pure. That is way more powerful."
"American Crime" airs Wednesdays at 10pm on ABC.