'American Crime' Season 3: TV Review

AMERICAN CRIME S03E01 Still - Publicity - H 2017
Nicole Wilder/ABC
Well-acted television of substance.

John Ridley's ABC anthology drama returns with a third season about exploitation in rural America and more strong work from Felicity Huffman, Regina King and the ensemble.

ABC's American Crime, premiering for an unlikely third season on Sunday, is not a show that necessarily engages viewers on an interpretative level.

Creator and frequent director John Ridley writes as if the cap-lock key on his laptop is perpetually broken. The series, as low-rated as you might fear for perhaps TV's most substantive scripted hour, is dogmatic, pragmatic and instigative.

Nobody ever turns off an American Crime episode and says, "Sure, that's what John Ridley was talking about on the surface, but here's what I think the episode was REALLY about…"

But if Ridley has done his job, and he usually has, you turn off an American Crime episode and say, "What do I think about what just happened? How does what just happened make me feel and what can I do about it?"

The frequently underlined theme in the third season is "exploitation," which isn't to say that this chapter in the anthology is exclusively about exploitation, because watching American Crime is like having a sensory map of Ridley's brain and tracking the synapses as they fly from one topic to the next.

The season starts with a 911 call and the report of a dead body in a river. Is that the season's pivotal crime as described in the title? As was the case in the show's second season, there's a main crime, a number of satellite crimes, the looming possibility of a still-bigger crime and then the understanding that the biggest crime of all is our own societal crime if we walk away from this story unmoved to action.

Over the first four episodes sent to critics, we begin to understand what that body has to do with the season's ensemble of characters, initially loosely connected, but cinched tighter together as we move along. Much of it relates to Hensby Farms, a family business that has discovered that it can only turn a profit if it cuts labor costs. Matriarch Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones) views this reality with cold-eyed detachment, but it begins to concern daughter-in-law Jeanette (Felicity Huffman) when a tragedy occurs that threatens to shine a disturbing light on the conditions impacting the farm workers. It's a plight we also see through the travels of Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), a father who comes across the border illegally looking for his son, and through wandering vagrant Coy Henson (Connor Jessup), whose drug addiction makes him vulnerable to the farm's crew chief Isaac (Richard Cabral), who is able to offer the possibility of steady employment and maybe more.

Not instantly linked to core story in plot, but surely in message, we have Kimara Walters (Regina King), an unattached social worker dedicated to helping young people in trouble, while also exploring the challenges of fertility treatments and other options to have a baby. Her main current charge is Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), a 17-year-old prostitute struggling to reverse the course her life has taken.

Since I thought the first American Crime season was too laser-focused on wallowing in misery, I've appreciated Ridley's push into more novelistic structures in the past two installments. The hook to the new season is probably less instantly powerful than the sexual assault allegations that drove the second season, but I may be more intrigued by the way Ridley is layering the story, letting each of several threads unfold at its own rate. I still don't wholly understand the way Cabral's hacker character was introduced and then utilized last season, but there's a real authorial grace to how this season appears to abruptly end one of its storylines, at the same time holding off on the arc featuring American Crime regulars Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor until well into the season. As always, I remain baffled by the math that allows ABC to keep bringing this show back. But I adore the opportunities it's giving Ridley and company to adjust and vary the ways he's trying to tell stories. This is especially true since I tuned out the first season early and I felt like the second season stumbled in its home stretch. Maybe this is the time American Crime nails its beginning, middle and end.

I also relish the pleasure Ridley clearly takes in figuring out how to create a season-by-season conversation through different uses of his ensemble and through the expansion of that ensemble courtesy of casting director Kim Coleman.

King, who now has two Emmys for her American Crime work, has been the leading beneficiary as Ridley has taken her from strident Muslim convert to affluent judgmental mother and now to a character whose compassion may be overwhelming.

It feels like this may be Huffman's year to grab the Emmy, though, as Ridley has eased off after two seasons of writing her as an only occasionally sympathetic villain. After playing a woman of resources who didn't always do the right thing, it's great watching Huffman as a character whose eyes are slowly opening and whose motivation to be altruistic may be new and unformed.

After taking last season off, Martinez has what is definitely his best part since The Shield, in a role meant to challenge audience expectations.

The choice to pair first-season breakout Cabral with second-season breakout Jessup was also inspired. Emmy voters missed the boat on Jessup last year, so Ridley gave him a full-on drug addiction arc this season and he is, once again, heartbreaking.

Of the new faces in the ensemble, Mulvoy-Ten is this year's Cabral or Jessup, a discovery who will surely get countless opportunities off of this showcase. She nails her character's mixture of innocence and premature weariness, her British roots never distracted me for a moment and she has a monologue in the third episode that's crushing.

Franchise newcomers Jones, Tim DeKay, Dallas Roberts and Sandra Oh all feel like they belong.

It helps that American Crime is one of the best directed series on television, a show full of choices that are distinctive, even if some of them — the blinking cuts to black on obscenities — are acquired tastes. The intense close-ups would cause a lesser cast to wilt, but here captures the subtlest of character tics. (My problem with the first season probably stems at least in part from my discomfort with the story's emotional intensity and how it played out in those close-ups.) It's also the rarest of TV shows in which depth-of-field plays a role that we'd traditionally call "cinematic." Getting back to that third episode, helmed by Victoria Mahoney, be sure to pay attention to how a key plot point plays in the back of the frame, mostly out of focus. It's something most shows wouldn't even try.

Despite those low ratings, American Crime has begun to spawn imitators like Fox's upcoming Shots Fired. Any time networks want to set aside ratings potential to do work that focuses on tackling real issues in a real way, I'm all for it. Tune in Sunday to see what Ridley has to say about the migrant labor force, the sex trade and the racial coding of drug addiction in America in 2017. American Crime may not leave you with much to interpret, but it always offers plenty to talk about.

Cast: Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Connor Jessup, Richard Cabral, Benito Martinez, Timothy Hutton, Lily Taylor, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Cherry Jones, Dallas Roberts, Tim DeKay, Mickaëlle X. Bizet.
Creator-showrunner: John Ridley
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)