Those seeking to escape the realities of harsh times should look away from American Crime, though that would be a shame. The anthology series from Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley confronts the issues that define us — race, gender, class, money — through beautifully crafted drama that captures your imagination as to the intricate web of society and encourages grace for everyone caught in it. The third season, the show’s most ambitious yet, concerns modern slavery in various forms. But it sweeps up so many themes — with an array of well-drawn, terrifically acted characters — that it becomes an all-encompassing portrait of American life. It shows you the profound repercussions in the smallest of gestures, from the food we buy to the luxuries we desire; it has the power to make you reconsider your worldview.
The story is haunted by the opening image, a corpse floating in a river, a mystery that takes four episodes to unravel. The next sequence is an artful orientation to the season’s concern for marginalized people. It’s a long shot of figures moving from the edges of a desolate Mexican landscape toward the center of the frame; they are immigrants, looking for a crack in the border to enter America. The camera settles on Luis (Benito Martinez), whose quest will take him to North Carolina and a struggling, family-run farm that employs — or rather, indentures — migrant workers, illegal immigrants, and runaways. Ridley — drawing upon real-life stories of trafficking and abuse — quickly and vividly establishes the tiered structure and complex culture of an enterprise that’s intrinsically immoral, no better than a slave plantation, and often just as lawless. Hesby Farms is a place of trickle-down desperation and exploitation, from the beleaguered ownership (Cherry Jones plays the materfamilias) squeezed by cutthroat wholesalers to the field marshals (including Richard Cabral) pressured to increase the productivity of the hired hands they manage like pimps.
The comparison to prostitution is implicitly made with a parallel plot about Shae, a deluded teenage sex worker (Ana Mulvoy-Ten). An unwanted pregnancy — and abortion laws that limit her agency — activate a suppressed identity and individuality. It also complicates her potentially redemptive rapport with her social worker (Regina King), a single woman yearning for children and saving for IVF treatments. Every story in this constantly evolving season is a gripping winner. Some wrap quickly, while a major one gets a delayed start: Episode 4 introduces Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor as husband-and-wife owners of a boutique furniture biz who take on an au pair from Haiti.
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The most compelling tale belongs to Felicity Huffman’s Jeanette Hesby. She’s a woman who grew up poor and married into the family and has learned not to ask questions about the morality of their livelihood. But when tragedy strikes the workers’ camp, she can’t ignore the prick of conscience that everyone else in the family, including her miserable husband (Dallas Roberts), stifles. Huffman makes Jeanette’s risky bloom from meek tool to awakened agent of justice organic and thrilling. She embodies the spirit of a searing, humane drama that succeeds at making urgent, artful pop culture by engaging the world, not looking away from it. A
American Crime season 3 premieres Sunday, March 12 at 10 p.m. ET.