AMERICAN CRIME: Sunday 10PM on ABC
John Ridley’s AMERICAN CRIME feels even more like an outlier amid the world of network television than it did when it debuted two years ago. Broadcasters have largely responded to the erosion in their ratings by seeking bigger and bigger tents, relying on procedurals, franchises, remakes and stars to attract the widest possible audience, while American Crime remains frankly political and rigorous in its aesthetics, which include a bare minimum of background score and lengthy dialogue scenes that are often shot in tight close-up, sometimes without any cuts to the other person in the conversation. The ratings have never been good, but the show has been a steady awards contender, and that seems to have been enough for ABC. (And ironically, that network’s own ratings have gotten so low for its non-Shonda Rhimes dramas that if Crime can stay steady this season, its numbers will be no worse than average.)
Previous seasons have largely revolved around issues of race, but Season 3 shifts focus, with the main subjects appearing to be human trafficking and teen prostitution, although class struggle continues to be much on Ridley’s mind. As usual, members of the series repertory company dot the cast, with Regina King appearing this time as a sympathetic social worker, Felicity Huffman as a woman who’s married into the family of an established but struggling big-farm business, and Benito Martinez as a Mexican man smuggled into the US as an agricultural worker. (Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor will be appearing as the season continues.) Newcomers include Sandra Oh as another social worker, Dallas Roberts as Huffman’s husband, Cherry Jones and Tim DeKay as his siblings, and Ana Mulvoy-Ten as an underage prostitute.
In the opening hour, written by Ridley and directed by So Yong Kim (who directed the very fine independent film Lovesong), the pieces of the story begin the process of coming together, and we’ve only seen a glimpse of the dead body that will presumably be at the specific center of the season’s title. The American Crime, of course, refers to much more than whatever happened to that particular corpse, and the episode has already pointed us to the victimization of the illegal workers, essentially used as slaves until their “debts” are paid off, and of the young sex workers. The farming family, which is being pressed by the few remaining corporate produce buyers to provide more crops for less cash, will make its numbers work by using the illegal workers.
American Crime has never been escapist entertainment, and despite generally superb acting (King has won an Emmy for both previous series years) and carefully crafted scripts, previous seasons have sometimes become so self-consciously somber as to court pretentiousness. This season, though, is topical in ways the others haven’t been–and even more than it could have known, since it was probably well into production on Election Day 2016. Although one doubts that many members of the current administration will be watching, the series has a chance of directly affecting the public discourse. The opening hour suggests that this season will be as serious and challenging as the series has been from the start, and this time some viewers may be paying particular attention.