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In the second series of American Crime, near-naked photos of a high school boy, Taylor Blaine, are posted online after a party. Blaine believes he was raped at the party, thrown by the leaders of the basketball team. (<137>Ryan Green<137><137><252><137>/ABC)
In the second series of American Crime, near-naked photos of a high school boy, Taylor Blaine, are posted online after a party. Blaine believes he was raped at the party, thrown by the leaders of the basketball team. (<137>Ryan Green<137><137><252><137>/ABC)

John Doyle: American Crime is the first great TV drama of 2016 Add to ...

If a New Year’s resolution was keeping on top of great TV, pay attention here. The first great drama of 2016 starts Wednesday night.

Now, by the time you’re reading this, I’ll be in L.A. for the TV Critics Association (TCA) midseason press tour. It’s worth attending these days as more and more quality series are made – so many that it can become impossible to keep track.

In 2015, according to research by the FX channel, there were 409 original scripted television series on broadcast, cable and online services. (PBS is excluded, and if you add all those Mystery! and Masterpiece series, the number would jump by 10 or 12.) That’s an increase of 33 from 2014 and it is double the number in 2008.

Last summer, FX’s John Landgraf stirred things up when he told TCA members that there is “simply too much television.” He doesn’t want less. None of us does. He was underlining how difficult it is to get attention for new series in a very crowded arena. Great shows will go largely unnoticed if press coverage doesn’t draw attention to them. We TV critics do our best.

The standard explanation for the explosion in quality content is the expanding number of cable channels and the arrival of multiple streaming services. Free of the restrictions placed on network TV, they deliver sophisticated, adult content. But traditional network TV remains a vital force in the arena and sometimes achieves a remarkable degree of urbanity and finesse.

American Crime (ABC, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET) is, like the first season of this anthology series, a stunningly good and sobering journey into toxic issues of race, money and class. It is as good as anything created for premium cable in recent years – finely written, exquisitely made and it has the serious heft of sober sociological analysis. As drama, it is formidably gripping.

As with the first season, it begins with a crime. Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor), a single mother at her wits’ end, gets a call from the elite school her son attends. She goes to the school fearing that her son, at the school on a scholarship, has failing grades.

In fact, her son Taylor (Connor Jessup) has been suspended, she’s told, because photos of him near-naked and apparently in a drunken stupor have been posted online. All the kids are talking about it.

After some prodding, Taylor tells his mom what happened. He believes he was raped at a party thrown by the leaders of the basketball team, Eric (Joey Pollari) and Kevin (Trevor Jackson). Kevin’s mother, Terri (Regina King, who won an Emmy for her work in the first season of American Crime) and dad, Michael (Andre Benjamin), are African-American, wealthy and powerful people in the community. Their status is important to them.

Anne brings the charges before the school principal, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman), a cautious bureaucrat who worries about the school’s reputation and its supply of money from donors. She recoils from Anne’s allegation that a rape occurred and simply tells basketball coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton) to act tough with his young players.

Exactly what happened is the key mystery. But in the hands of writer John Ridley (he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave), this is no ordinary crime drama. It is low-key, anchored in long scenes of characters reacting to events, justifying their positions and, in the end, getting seriously lost.

There is almost no music used in the drama. There is an uncanny silence, often, and the camera isn’t where you expect it to be. One long scene in which Taylor is examined by a nurse about the rape allegation is entirely focused on Taylor. You almost never see the nurse.

Eventually, all the biases and prejudices that compel the characters in their actions come to the surface. American Crime is about the terrible mess of the ordinary, about people fumbling for solutions but held back by deeply held beliefs they don’t want challenged. Ridley’s style is never overly dramatic. The characters are deeply human, not ogres. What American Crime does is put elements of the American culture under a microscope and ask the audience to observe.

Also airing tonight

Midwinter of the Spirit (CBC, 9 p.m.) is for fans of Brit drama. And from what I’ve seen, it’s good entertainment but not extraordinary. It’s about one Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin), an Anglican vicar and a widowed single mother who is appointed “deliverance minister” (an exorcist, really). She investigates matters creepy and supernatural. These matters are more maddening than they are explainable and, although it occasionally gets gory, the series is mostly interested in a being pleasant page-turner of the eccentric crime procedural type.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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