Jeanette Hesby walks onto her husband's family's farm. She's there to investigate for herself why a group of workers there were killed in a fire. One of the supervisors explains the conditions of the trailers they sleep in — that more than 15 of them were trapped in one when a small appliance caught fire.
"They were trapped inside?" Felicity Huffman as Jeanette asks, with a long North Carolinian drawl matching the setting of American Crime's third season. Then, without another word, she stops dead in her tracks. The camera pans out to show the squalor of the undocumented laborers' living conditions — and the wreckage the fire left behind.
If season two of American Crime, John Ridley's highly acclaimed ABC anthology drama, was about how personal conflict affects a community, the third season is all about modern slavery. Like last season, which explored its major theme through stories of queer identity and the trauma of sexual assault, Ridley's series uses individual tales about laborers, documented and undocumented and underage sex workers.
Though disparate in plot and cast — the laborers story focusing on Huffman, Richard Cabral and Benito Martinez, while the sex worker story is led by Regina King and series newcomers Ana Mulvoy-Ten and Sandra Oh — the two are connected by this overarching theme. Both stories depict how the slavery of today traps the underprivileged in economic and emotional pitfalls to keep them working. The end result is nothing short of devastating.
American Crime season three is a feat: a show that educates viewers about a modern plague, but never forgets to be artful while teaching. It's great TV that never forgets about the importance of humanity — not just of its fictional characters, but of the millions of real people they represent.
Huffman, who returns with much of the ensemble cast for another season playing different roles, serves as an emotional entry point for the laborers' story. But it's Cabral, who plays Isaac, a crew chief on a farm, and Martinez, who plays Luis, a father who comes from Mexico to find his lost son, who get most of the emotional meat in the story. Martinez is particularly affecting, depicting Luis' determination and anguish with equal aplomb.
Many of Martinez's scenes are in Spanish. Later episodes introduce Mickaëlle X. Bizet as Gabrielle, a Haitian woman who speaks mostly French with her boss Clair, played by American Crime returnee Lili Taylor. Sometimes, what they say is subtitled. Other times, the writers allow viewers to figure out what's going on from context clues. It's challenging, but effective.
The sex-work story is definitely the secondary plot, but King proves why she has two Emmys for this series. As Kimara Walters, a social worker who tries to help get underage sex workers to safe harbor, she's the season's mind, while her scene partner Mulvoy-Ten, who plays a 17-year-old prostitute named Shae, is the season's heart.
In one monologue, Shae opens up to a therapy group about her conflicted feelings for her pimp. It's gut-wrenching, immediately establishing Mulvoy-Ten as this season's version of Connor Jessup: the youngest star who stands tall among the crowd of veteran thespians, and who also returns this season as a drug-addicted laborer working under Isaac.
The direction of the four episodes provided to critics is nothing short of stunning. The series' signature cinematic style returns from season two, including plenty of captivating long-takes, while the helmers guide the ensemble through difficult subject matter with aplomb. It's worth noting that the directors of all four episodes are women — Julie Hébert, So Yong Kim, Victoria Mahoney and Steph Green — if only because women remain woefully underemployed as directors in the film and TV industries.
This, as much as anything, is evidence that American Crime walks the walk as well as it talks the talk. "Woke" as a trend and brand is popular right now, but so often the intentions don't match the actions. It's disheartening to see a project like Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, for instance, celebrated for including feminist themes when the script was written by a bunch of men. Diversity is not a hot fad — it requires real implementation on both sides of the camera.
American Crime's cast and crew is properly inclusive, which lends the series credibility. Ridley's team feels deeply invested in not just crafting great TV, but righting wrongs in the world. For example, last season, American Crime aired a school shooting episode in which the shooter was a closeted teen. They immediately followed it up with an episode that included interviews with LGBTQ bullying victims and Columbine survivors. It's responsible television, almost like art as activism.
For some, American Crime's third season is going to be too hard to watch. That's not an unreasonable position: This is brutal TV, as harrowing as anything on cable or streaming networks, but still somehow on ABC. It's a credit to the network that they allow something so bracingly honest to air in prime time.
Those who stick with the show, however, will be rewarded with some of the most emotional, essential TV of the year, stuffed to the brim with great performances. They may even be compelled to action. American Crime is an emphatic plea for the safety of these people — of undocumented laborers, underage sex workers and more — and it's an inspiring one.
American Crime season three premieres at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sunday on ABC.
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