‘American Crime’ Brings Echoes Of ‘The Wire’ To Network TV With Season Three

“The food on your table comes with a price you can’t see, but that somebody has to pay. Same with the clothes on your back. Same with the things in your house. You have to look at your life and ask, ‘What does it cost to live the way I do?'”

This is part of a speech that two of the main characters on ABC’s American Crime attend, and also a thesis statement for the anthology miniseries’ intense, remarkably ambitious third season, which debuts Sunday night at 10. (I’ve seen the first four episodes.)

The first two seasons of the John Ridley-created series already had a lot on their mind, tackling issues of race and class and sexuality with a deftness and thoughtfulness rarely seen anywhere on television, and especially on a show made for one of the traditional broadcast networks. The start of season three, though, suggests Ridley and friends were just getting warmed up with those earlier stories. The new season weaves a complicated tapestry involving sex workers and migrant farmers, social workers and land barons, opioid addicts and au pairs, all in service of that larger point about the very real, very human cost of so many of the basic goods and services we take for granted as part of our daily life.

In its sprawl, in its empathy for characters from all social spheres, and in its political fury, the new season may be the closest thing I’ve seen to The Wire. That’s never a comparison to be thrown around lightly — and The Wire, with its police procedural spine, its action and suspense, and its abundant dark humor, was a far more fun and purely entertaining show than the relentlessly sober-minded American Crime has any interest in being(*) — but as I watched the new episodes deftly bring its many stories together with as much righteous anger as artistry, I felt a tingle in a part of my brain that has largely laid dormant since my days as a TV tourist in West Baltimore.

(*) Lately, when one of my reviews complains that a new series is humorless, people will ask me why I think comedy should be considered a mandatory ingredient of an otherwise dramatic program. I tell them I don’t think that, but that if there’s not some kind of humor, or lightness, then the execution of all the utterly serious material has to be so good that I’m willing to wallow in the misery along with the characters. Few shows are well-crafted enough to clear that high bar; American Crime soars over it.

Once again, the show mixes and matches its actors into different roles, while adding a few promising new players. Our setting this time is rural North Carolina, with much of the action centered on a tomato farm run by siblings Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones), JD (Tim DeKay), and Carson (Dallas Roberts), whose wife Jeanette (Felicity Huffman) becomes alarmed to learn about the conditions in which their farm hands — most of them undocumented immigrants — live and work. Richard Cabral is Isaac, a crew chief on the farm who recruits young addict Coy (Connor Jessup, the breakout star of season two) to work for him as a chance to get clean and earn money, while Benito Martinez is Luis, who crosses the U.S./Mexico border with a hidden goal in mind. Other plots — including a social worker (Regina King) trying to keep a teen prostitute (Ana Mulvoy Ten) in a shelter and away from her pimp, and a struggling furniture manufacturer (Timothy Hutton) whose wife (Lili Taylor) hires a Haitian woman (Mickaëlle X. Bizet) to be nanny to their son — aren’t directly linked to the farm in the early going, but all spin around the same thematic questions about people being treated as fungible products in a complicated modern economy, and the desperate lengths people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder will go to in order to escape bad circumstances, whether an abusive household or life in another country.

The actors are uniformly excellent, and it’s always interesting to see how the core players in the American Crime repertory company are used from season to season. After two years as arguably the most loathsome person in each story, Huffman gets to play one of the more sympathetic characters, while King goes from playing a rich, powerful and respected businesswoman and mother last time out to a lonely woman trying to afford fertility treatments while working a thankless, emotionally exhausting job. There’s always a danger that material like this becomes so didactic that the characters seem more like symbols or walking position papers than they do human beings; this cast ensures that never happens.

As director of the series pilot, Ridley set up an impressive, singularly minimalist stylistic template, with spare use of music, and scenes often playing out as one static shot, usually with only one character in close-up, regardless of who’s around them and who’s speaking. Directors for the new season’s early episodes include So Yong Kim, Julie Hébert, Victoria Mahoney, and Steph Green, each of whom uses Ridley’s visual language to interesting, unsettling effect, like the way Mahoney frames an act of violence in the third episode at the far, distant edge of the frame — not to diminish it, but to show how brutally commonplace it is in this world.

(One stylistic tic the show unfortunately hasn’t left behind by now: When characters use words you aren’t allowed to say on ABC, the dialogue isn’t only muted — an increasingly common practice on basic cable shows like Mr. Robot and The Magicians — but the screen goes black for a moment, perhaps to ensure no ABC viewer might read someone’s lips and file an FCC complaint. Each blackout does far more damage to the verisimilitude of the thing than if the characters either didn’t curse at all, or used more creative and censor-friendly terminology to the same effect.)

Barely anyone watched the first two seasons, its original champion at the network Paul Lee is long gone, and while the show has drawn many Emmy nominations in the now ultra-competitive limited series categories, King’s two supporting actress trophies are its only major award victories. In a climate where anyone trying to create a show even the least bit challenging wants to go to cable at minimum, and maybe to a streaming outlet to avoid executive interference entirely, it’s amazing that a show this outspoken, this complicated, and this unlike anything else being made as part of Peak TV in America, continues to exist on one of the original Big Three networks.

But it’s still here, and the anthology format means no knowledge of prior seasons is needed to dive right in on what seems to be American Crime‘s biggest, and best, year yet.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com