The rising tide of prestige drama on television is supposed to be fun to swim in.
The excellence comes in forms that are epic (Game of Thrones and its many copycats), regal (The Crown), twisty (Westworld), spooky (Stranger Things), wildly entertaining (People v. O.J. Simpson), and sometimes just plain fun (Big Little Lies). Even those series swathed in darkness and grittiness invite you in for shades of perverse pleasure in entering the mind of antiheroes (House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mr. Robot, and their kin).
That’s what’s made John Ridley’s ABC drama American Crime, which returns for its third season Sunday night, so unique. And, for all of the critical accolades and awards attention it has received, so unpopular.
American Crime is not a series anyone would call fun—though Season 3 does promise Felicity Huffman delivering us her best Southern drawl and Lili Taylor speaking French.
It is uncomfortable and disturbing, but not in a way that is escapist like so many of the aforementioned series. Rather, it identifies the very things about your life and your community that you try to escape, and forces you to confront them in a way that’s so realistic you start questioning how you live.
On a network that has polished the masterful Shonda Rhimes mode of vigorous, high-octane, sometime even frantic storytelling—quick cuts and quicker plot twists; loud cues and louder acting—American Crime is unusual and perhaps even jarring with its experimental filmmaking and leisurely storytelling. So leisurely this season, in fact, that experiencing the story as it unfolds is actually a bit torturous, both because of its subject matter and its pace.
American Crime takes the Ryan Murphy approach of using a recurring stable of actors to tell a completely different story each season.
Season 1 was set in Modesto, California, where race, religion, and injustice jostled together when a war veteran became the victim of a home invasion. Season 2 moved to Indianapolis, where the captains of an elite private school’s basketball team were accused of sexually assaulting a male classmate.
The show’s broad scope is always the same: It illuminates the social justice issues that surround normal Americans every day in a way that provokes and punishes, delicately prodding our ability for compassion and then harshly startling us into a realization of our own prejudices.
Season 3 is set in Alamance County, North Carolina. Regular players Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Timothy Hutton, Benito Martinez, and Richard Cabral return, but adding to the sprawl this season are major additions Sandra Oh, Cherry Jones, Janel Maloney, Tim DeKay, and former child star Ana Mulvoy-Ten in a pivotal role as a teen prostitute. (Again, not a “fun” show.)
King, who has won two Emmys for her work on the series, is Kimara, a social worker whose job is to rescue underage sex workers off the streets, which takes an emotional toll as she struggles with IVF treatments to have her own child. She’s assigned to the case of Mulvoy-Ten’s Shae Reese, a 17-year-old who argues that her life under the care of her pimp might be better for her than one in the system. As she tries to get Shae help, Kimara wonders if that might be true.
Huffman is Jeanette Hesby, whose mother-in-law (Cherry Jones) owns a farming business that employs undocumented immigrants in order to cut labor costs. When she learns that inhumane conditions the farm houses its workers in—20 men to a one-room trailer—led to a fire that killed 15 people, she tests family allegiances with a crusade to fix things.
New to the farm is Martinez’s Luis Salazar, who arrives from Mexico in search of his son who used to work there, but has disappeared. It’s through Luis and Connor Jessup’s wayward Coy Henson, who picks vegetables alongside him, that we’re clued into the abuse, extortion, and sadism the workers aren’t just subjected to, but essentially entrapped in.
That’s just scratching the surface of the characters and plots that tangle this season’s narrative, which is perhaps its biggest fault. With far too many characters to invest in and stories to tell, the show is at risk of keeping its most powerful figures from making a more potent impact. It’s not that each thread isn’t interesting. They’re all utterly devastating, so much so that you wish you had more time with each.
But like the seasons before, this current run of American Crime does meticulous work in forcing you as a viewer to question your preconceived notions, understand your own biases, and realize that how people behave with their fellow humans often has nothing to do with being good or bad. Even when you watch their bad behavior, you empathize with it and wonder if you might have acted in the same way.
More than before, this season seems to want to make a point, which isn’t necessarily a weakness. But audiences tend to not want to feel like they’re being preached to, and it’s unfortunate if that ends up being a reason someone doesn’t watch.
It should go without saying there is direct and, one would assume, deliberate political messaging in a show that emphasizes the plight of undocumented workers in an industry we all depend on to survive—literally picking our food.
“If I told you the stories of lo que pasa in the fields, you’d say I’m making it up,” one former undocumented worker says. “That it doesn’t happen. That it can’t happen here. Another country, some other city. But not here. What we are telling you is la verdad. The food on your table comes with a price you can’t see, but somebody has to pay.”
While certainly exposing the plight of undocumented workers, the drug epidemic among rural teens, and the realities the sex trade, this season seems to be more about the ways in which we, as a society, have forced people to be trapped.
The Hensby Farms company, because of industry standards, fiscally has no choice but to employ more undocumented workers to do more work for lower wages in worse conditions.
The workers, because they owe debts to the “captains” who board them in those conditions and pay off those who need bribing, have no choice but to suffer any and all brutality they endure on the job.
And in the case of Shae, here is a young woman who, even with a social worker’s help, can’t overcome the legal constraints that prevent her from feeling like returning to sex work is a better option.
All of this should confuse you and infuriate you, and somehow make you feel both enlightened and guilty. You see the good in some of the characters and feel hopeful. You see the bad that isn’t maliciously intentioned, and you feel helpless. Maybe even resigned.
The show continues to take storytelling risks unusual for a broadcast show.That it opens with an extended, five-minute sequence of immigrants walking through the desert to the U.S. border, with nothing but the sound of their footsteps and occasional subtitled Spanish dialogue is certainly one of them.
American Crime is nothing then if not ambitious. At times perhaps over-ambitious: a pace that’s too slow, a cast of characters too large, and too many points to make to possibly bring them all home. But watching to see which ones do strike you—well, we lied. That actually is fun.