'American Crime' Boss John Ridley Answers Fan Stephen King’s Questions

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Creating a television show that takes on weighty issues like race, class, and gender politics isn’t an easy proposition, so writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) approached American Crime like it was an “insane experiment” that probably wouldn’t last.

Except it did. Not only did ABC renew the drama for a second season, but American Crime racked up 10 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series. That kind of acclaim can be heady stuff, but Ridley isn’t taking any of it for granted. And he’s very grateful for the support of one superfan in particular: Stephen King. “For someone who’s the very definition of a storyteller to choose to support our show and what we do, the provocative nature of the way we tell stories, just means the world to all of us on American Crime,” says Ridley of King. “Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottoms of our hearts and the depth of my soul.”

King, who calls American Crime “amazingly good,” gave Yahoo TV a few questions to ask Ridley about putting together his intense drama, and what to expect in Season 2, which debuts midseason.

Congrats on all those Emmy nominations!
It feels really nice, especially nice for the cast and crew. I really appreciate that people recognize all the work that they put into it. I was very surprised, pleasantly surprised — you can’t take any of it for granted.

So, we have some questions for you from Stephen King. The first one is, “How much pushback did you guys get from the network?” Please note that King wants the answer to come “with a minimum of bulls–t, please.”
I will respond with a minimum of bulls–t! In terms of the subject matter, we got no pushback. This was an area that ABC very much wanted to explore and excavate. They came to me with the subject area, wanting to do a show that dealt with perspectives and race and ethnicity, and do it in a way that is not done — certainly not on broadcast, but I don’t even think on cable.

So, there was never a moment where they said, “Hey, you know, could you change the subject matter, soften it a little bit.” In terms of presentation — the language of cinema that we use — there were a few occasions when they started a conversation. But ultimately, they were amazingly supportive.

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Mr. King also wants to know:  "How much [pushback] are you getting in regards to Season 2?“
You know, nobody’s done a show quite like this before, nobody’s done a show with these kinds of perspectives on the screen, and also behind the screen — in terms of representation, we have with female directors, directors of color, and our editorial staff. So, everybody was like, "Hey, maybe this is an insane experiment, and in one way, shape or form, it’s not going to work and we don’t have to worry about it next year.”

There was a film called The Candidate with Robert Redford, and he runs for office, and the point of it is: You’re not going to win, so say what you want and say it the way you want to say it. I think there was a little bit of a feeling of that. Now you get that second season, and it’s like, Oh, we actually did it. I think we’re all hyper-cognizant of wanting to both replicate the things that we did well, but not overstay our welcome or try to hard to do what we did last season. Is there a way to be potent and to be urgent without looking over our shoulders or tripping ourselves up? I think that’s our concern going into this year, not that ABC is coming down and saying, “Hey could you do this or don’t do that?”

Next King question: “Do you expect the new season to be a bit more viewer-friendly, or will it be just as dark?”
It will not be more viewer-friendly, in the sense that if people had an issue with the show in terms of the subject matter or the way it was delivered, that we would tone it down. The subject matter that we choose to talk about we think deserves to be delivered in the most provocative way possible. We want to provoke thought, we want to provoke conversation.

Last question from Stephen: “How difficult is it to tread the line between story and theme? Between entertainment and message?”
You don’t want to have a story that meanders. You don’t want to have a story that doesn’t have a point, but you also don’t want to be so on point that you miss moments of grace. There are little moments where you have to go off theme a little bit, to find things that are engaging and humanizing.

In terms of message versus entertainment, for us, I think we will always err on the side of message, because simply, there are not enough shows out there dealing specifically with this kind of subject matter. We hope we deliver those messages in ways that are cinematic and ways that are interesting. Hopefully, we’re never preachy, never proselytizing. This coming season, it’ll be about sexual orientation, boundaries, socioeconomic issues.

Season 2’s arc is about a young male teen who is sexually assaulted by schoolmates. How did you decide on that storyline?
Obviously, that’s a conversation that needs attention. It’s one of those things where, unfortunately, in television, when one deals with assault, sometimes it can be reduced to a plot point. It was a subject matter that we really want to delve into.

And it’s something that’s not being looked at elsewhere in culture. We started to find stories about male, peer-to-peer sexual assault — not molestation, but young men doing this to each other — and the difficulties they face, societal difficulties. Spending time talking to people who counsel and talking to these young men, it is something we feel is very much worth talking about — talk about how we deal with it, how we reduce the fear of talking about it. The statistics for how underreported it is all across the board, how poorly it’s dealt with, how rarely it’s adjudicated.

We have 10 episodes, and the advantage of having 10 episodes is that we can focus on stories, on people, on character and really take the time to deal with it as sensitively and thoroughly as possible.

You mentioned before hiring directors of color and female directors, and that being an important issue for you. 
Absolutely. I think last year, 70 percent of our directors were female and of color. I think this year, it’s 60 percent. Michael McDonald, the other producer, and myself, when we sit down, we don’t want to be hyper-correct. But we do set out to be conclusive, and I think on a show about perspectives and different ideologies, it’d be very disingenuous to do that show from a very homogenous perspective.

It’s something where, once you start to build that environment, you can not only be inclusive and not only be reflective, you can do it without minimizing the quality of the product. And the thing is, we could get canceled after the first episode of the second season, but people will look at it and say, “Well, American Crime was pretty good, and that director, she worked on it. Or that young man was in the writers’ room.” These really terrific individuals, who happen to be women, who happen to be of color, now they’ve got an opportunity. At this point in my career, that is one of the few things I have left.

Season 2 of American Crime premieres in 2016 on ABC.