We gave it an A-
John Ridley and his crackerjack team of actors have returned with another winning formula for great television.
After tackling the subject of sexual assault — and the ripple effect it had on an Indianapolis community — in season 2, American Crime came roaring back tonight on ABC with a brand new, relevant story line. For the third installment in his anthology series, creator Ridley has once again enlisted the help of his go-to roster of talent, which includes Emmy winner Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Connor Jessup, and Richard Cabral (American Crime regulars Lili Taylor and Timothy Hutton are back this season as well but don’t appear just yet).
If you thought Ridley epitomized television excellence with the way he handled the story of teen rape allegations last season, you’ll be pleased to know that season 2 was just a warm-up. The season 3 premiere alone makes you wish all of the subsequent episodes were available for immediate binge-watching. That’s because this episode only scratches the surface in its portrayal of modern-day slavery — season 3’s theme — effortlessly drawing the viewer in to the show’s array of troubled characters.
In a nutshell, season 3 of American Crime explores the seedy underbelly of the American dream and how it’s almost impossible to not thrive off of someone else’s subjugation. Instead of chilly Indianapolis, this year, the action takes place in the steamy, hot summer of Alamance County, North Carolina, where the viewers are introduced to stories of underage prostitution, immigration, and forced labor.
With Donald Trump in the White House, this could not be a better time for Ridley and his crew to address the issues of undocumented migrant workers in the agricultural industry — and their blatant exploitation by farm owners. But, as Ridley has always done with American Crime, he also does his part to at least try to explain where those doing the exploiting are coming from.
On the one hand, viewers are introduced to the Hesbys: a wealthy white family whose tomato farm conglomerate goes back generations. But even their decades of success don’t make them immune to a competitive market that requires lower prices for their produce. That means cutting corners with their laborers, and even in this single episode, we see how the proverbial, well, “compost” runs downhill. The three siblings who now run the farm (Cherry Jones, Tim DeKay, and Dallas Roberts) order their white foremen to find workers “for a price.” That same demand is passed on to the Hispanic crew chiefs — one of whom is Cabral’s character, Isaac Castillo, who drives around town luring desperate, unsuspecting men with the promise of money, shelter and community.
The person who is going to be the real key to unlocking the Hesbys’ secrets this season, though, is a member of the family — but certainly not one of their own. That person is Jeanette Hesby (Huffman), who is married to one of the Hesby siblings (Roberts’ character, Carson). Aside from constantly being iced out from family business discussions — you learn all you need to know about Huffman’s character during a dinner scene in which she remains silent while her husband and in-laws discuss hiring workers for less money — Jeanette is basically a restless housewife in need of a project.
Back to the exploited: What remains to be seen is how much the Hesbys know about the squalid, slave-like conditions their field workers are living in (and if they care). The first character who brings this issue to light is Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez — another American Crime alum), a Mexican migrant who illegally crosses the border ostensibly for work, but given his insistence upon going to North Carolina, it’s evident he’s got an ulterior motive. (The episode’s opening dialogue of a 911 call in Spanish reporting a death, and the images of a body floating in a river, will make more sense as the season progresses.)