It’s hard to believe that a series as rigorously intelligent as American Crime could be starting its third season on a broadcast network, ABC, much less that it has become subtler over time. Where the first and second seasons of John Ridley’s drama gave you the gist of the crime right away (and made it as tabloid-lurid as possible, the better to jump-start audience interest in what ultimately played out more like a Robert Altman or Mike Leigh film), this new batch of episodes takes its sweet time telling you what crime is going to be investigated. In fact, it shows you a number of crimes being enacted along multiple plot lines that presumably will converge over the next few weeks, and the most notable thing about them is how not-notable they are. These are the kinds of crimes that might not make a major newspaper or be reported at all. Which is the point.
This season’s story is set in North Carolina against the backdrop of crop-picking businesses and their employees, with subplots about sex workers set in the surrounding community. Some of the ground covered here is reminiscent of season two of The Wire, which was set on Baltimore’s docks, but only in that it cares about American labor and the laws that govern it. From what’s onscreen, it appears that there are few laws left, and that most of these aren’t enforced. The people who pick the crops are overwhelmingly Mexican immigrants. Their working conditions are reminiscent of pre-union hellscapes in films like John Sayles’s coal-mining drama Matewan: Immigrants come across the border desperately seeking jobs that pay only a few dollars an hour, only to wind up in indentured servitude for years because they have to pay for their own housing and repay the people who brought them across the border. They are exploited in every way.
Ridley’s writers quickly put the lie to “they’re taking our jobs” in a subplot about a young white drug addict named Coy Henson (Conor Jessup). Coy accepts work in the fields as a tomato picker at the behest of a farm crew chief who’s a bit sweet on him (Richard Cabral) and can only stand a couple of days of the crew’s unrelenting labor before he wants out. And he can’t, because he owes the bosses for all manner of expenses. His plight is juxtaposed with a middle-aged Mexican man named Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) who has come to the United States in search of his son, who worked in these same fields and went missing.
The “capital” part of this workplace drama is represented by a family-owned farm whose patriarch is dying in a hospital. It’s a King Lear–type situation: The most ruthless of the owner’s children (Cherry Jones) has taken over the tomato farm and vowed to make things more efficient. She has to, otherwise the family can’t compete with the corporate suppliers importing produce harvested by borderline slave labor overseas. Her brother (Dallas Roberts) appears to be completely spineless, but his wife (Felicity Huffman) is a closet bleeding-heart who feels so guilty over her family’s treatment of the workers that she’s secretly giving money to activist groups. In a cast this strong, it’s tough to choose an MVP, but Huffman would be mine. After playing hard, essentially unsympathetic characters in the previous two seasons of American Crime, she plays a sympathetic one here, but in a way that dries out the sentimentality. There’s a scene in the fourth episode where her character is in conversation with two family members, and she realizes that one of them betrayed her; the camera shifts a bit to center Huffman’s reaction, then very subtly pulls back, as if it can’t bear to be too close to a woman experiencing such deep shock and embarrassment. It’s like one of those Vertigo shots where the background and foreground seem to be collapsing to smash a character, but there’s no fancy camerawork involved: It’s all carried by Huffman’s acting.
There’s a sub-thread here about addiction, and it ties into the main story of economic exploitation in fascinating ways that only sometimes feel forced, as when characters flat-out tell each other, and incidentally the audience, that Americans are collectively addicted to a particular standard of living and don’t care what conditions produce it. There are two people in the extended Hesby family with addiction problems, and a major thread follows a 17-year-old sex worker named Shae Reese (Ana Mulvoy-Ten). American Crime also takes on the war on abortion rights in this country when Shae ends up pregnant and realizes that it’s hard for poor people, minors especially, to have abortions in North Carolina without jumping through an endless series of hoops specifically designed to force them to have a child they don’t want or cannot support. Shae is articulate about the reasons for her poor choices, especially in a scene where she challenges a health-department bureaucrat who tells her she has to seek permission from the same father whose sexual abuse drove her out on the streets and made her sexually dysfunctional. Regina King is tough and moving as the girl’s social worker who is living a mirror version of her client’s life: She desperately wants a child but can’t carry one.
As you’ve gathered, this is all very grim stuff, and Ridley is not known for his sense of humor. What jokes there are tend to be of the dead-end, “Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse” variety, and this might prove a major obstacle for some viewers (not that people flocked to the first two seasons looking for a fun night of escapism). And there are hints that, as in previous years, Ridley might be trying to fold too many issues into a single season; I’m not entirely sure why we need the story of a rich family (Lili Taylor and Timothy Hutton) and their Haitian nanny (Mickaëlle X. Bizet), though presumably future episodes will show how they fit into the grand scheme. But these are nitpicks. I’m grateful that a series like this one exists in the first place. That it’s so intelligently written and shot and thoughtfully acted is a marvelous bonus.