The third installment of John Ridley's anthology series tackles the seedy underbelly of the American dream
Credit: Nicole Wilder/ABC

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.)

Upon arriving in Alamance County, Luis’ new farm job looks less like an American dream than a minority-oppressed nightmare. He’s forced to live in a cramped, filthy trailer, while his Spanish-speaking boss informs him most of his pay will go toward his “debts”: his border-crossing, his food, his housing. The boss’ assurance, “I’ll take care of your money for you,” wields a far more ominous tone than a protective one.

But it’s not only the immigrants who are manipulated in this manner: Isaac stumbles upon a wayward white kid named Coy Henson (Jessup, who played the teen at the center of last season’s rape story line). Coy could not be a better target here: He’s got no family, he’s addicted to Oxy, and he’s quickly tempted by the promise of what sounds like easy money. By the end of the episode, Coy has driven off with Isaac in his truck, clueless to the hardship that awaits him at the tomato farm.

The other form of exploitation that will be examined this season is that of sex trafficking: Heading up this part of the narrative is King’s character, Kimara Walters. From the moment we meet Kimara — King doing yet another 180-degree turn from last season’s well-to-do helicopter mom — it is clear that she devotes every fiber of her being to her job as a social worker. Kimara specializes in advocating for underage prostitutes, and though there is no question of her dedication, the fact that she delivers the same speech to two different teens at the start and the end of the episode demonstrates that even the most tireless activists can come off sounding jaded.

Right now, it’s hard to see how Kimara’s years in this thankless profession have been worth it. In a brief scene, the viewer learns that she has been trying to conceive a child via IVF — alone — and the latest round of treatments didn’t take. Like Huffman, King doesn’t need any dialogue in this scene to convey the low place her character is in.

As we’re getting to know Kimara, the viewer is also introduced to 17-year-old prostitute Shae Reese (the excellent American Crime newcomer Ana Mulvoy-Ten). Shae’s existence is a vicious cycle of getting made up at a department store cosmetics counter and then being forced by her pimp to service johns in shabby motel rooms ranging from middle-aged white-collar workers to sweaty, overweight men who like it rough. Through it all, she does as she’s told, which also entails enticing a homeless teen outside a convenience store into joining the business in a scene reminiscent of this very special episode of The Facts of Life. Above all costs, Shae is careful not to let any emotion slip through her eyes, lest her mercurial pimp notice.

When Shae and her latest john are ultimately busted by the cops at the end of the episode, she looks even more frightened than she does during any of her jobs. Soon afterward, Kimara arrives at the police station to assure Shae that she’s “not in trouble,” but given the rampant Stockholm Syndrome that she’s witnessed in her line of work (we see at the beginning of the episode her failed attempt to get another underage prostitute to rat on his pimp/cousin), it remains to be seen if Shae will even accept Kimara’s help.

Ridley has never shied away from brutal storytelling, and this season is no different. That’s because the 12 Years a Slave writer has no qualms about holding up a mirror to America’s dark side and its ramifications. Now, with this country battling divisiveness on a daily basis, these kinds of stories, more than ever, are mandatory viewing.

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