American Crime (ABC/Nicole Wilder)

Opiate for the masses: "American Crime" is better than ever and still hard to swallow

The show's ambitious third season serves harsh medicine in its unsparing examination of human trafficking

Melanie McFarland
March 12, 2017 1:30AM (UTC)

“Oh, man. Here we go again with this ‘opiate’ business. Pray tell, what pile of TV fail are you going to tell us about this week?”

Salutations to you, too, Salon reader! How about we change things up a little and discuss an outstanding TV series?


“Right, OK — and somehow liken it to crack or Oxy or a Kardashian.”

Not this time. No, this show is addictive for only a minuscule segment of viewers, those who pride themselves in watching raw, intricate drama powered by intense performances and an involving plot that makes pointed observations about the invisible price of plenty. Ever heard of “American Crime”?

“That O.J. Simpson show that won all the awards?”


You’re thinking of “American Crime Story.” The confusion is understandable.

“American Crime” is ABC’s contribution to the limited series format, created and executive produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker John Ridley. Each season explores a widespread social ill filtered through the prism of a fictionalized case. The first, for example, examined racial prejudice in the justice system, and the second followed a sexual-assault case in which the victim was humiliated by his peers on social media.

But this third season is far and away the series' most ambitious in terms of its execution and scope, in that it takes on human trafficking and reveals the ways that our economy relies on and perpetuates it. These new episodes put faces on tales of illegal immigration, the dark side of agribusiness, opiate addiction, abortion law and our lopsided justice system.


“Uh huh. And when is this airing?”

The new season premieres on Sunday at 10 p.m.

“Right. That’s my ‘Billions’ time. Anyway, thanks for the heads up.”

Perhaps it may interest you to know that it opens with the report of a dead body in a river?”


“You have my attention again.”

Is this because you’re expecting "American Crime" to be a procedural? That may be one of the reasons it has failed to connect with more viewers. If the title didn’t confuse viewers looking for its similarly titled, saucier miniseries competition on FX, its unrelenting grimness probably resulted in a number of viewers cutting bait. Season 2 drew on average about 3.7 million viewers a week.

That’s a shame, because “American Crime” features full-throttle performances by Felicity Huffman and Regina King. In fact, King, has won two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe nomination for her work on its first two seasons. Huffman's work on the series also earned Emmy and Globe nods.


Season 3 changes the concept of the title’s “crime” to examine the ways that our country’s disregard of illegal immigrants, addicts and homeless people enables a web of exploitation and indentured servitude — slavery, truly — to thrive in the United States. And human rights issues aren’t a sexy sell for broadcast prime-time audiences.

But Ridley uses actual accounts of trafficking, neglect and abuse to draw the viewer into the morally corrupted world of an agricultural business under pressure to provide consumers everything they desire at a low cost. And through several initially unrelated stories, he puts us nose to nose with the people at the very bottom of our economic ladder to help us understand the bloody price they’re made to pay for us to enjoy the items we think of as grocery basics — tomatoes, for instance.

In season 3 Huffman portrays Jeanette Hesby, an acquiescent woman married into a family that owns a financially struggling North Carolina tomato farm run by the oldest daughter, Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones).


With consumers demanding cheaper produce, the family is under pressure keep the farm's production costs lower than ever. That means cutting labor costs to nearly nothing. And the only people who will work for the promise, even a false one, of a dollar are the desperate — undocumented workers who don’t speak English or homeless people like Coy Henson (Connor Jessup), an itinerant drug addict.

People like Coy are easy targets for unscrupulous crew chiefs like Isaac Castillo (Richard Cabral, in his third outing on the series), who lures Coy to the fields with the empty assurance that he can make more than $100 a day. But Coy soon realizes that he’s trapped and has few options to escape a situation that quickly grows violent.

Another cruel reality that “American Crime” illuminates through Coy and Jeanette’s alcoholic husband JD (Tim DeKay), is the absolute disregard with which we treat people suffering from substance abuse issues and how many inequities exist on that front. More than one character observes that if heroin is a problem in communities of color, it’s an epidemic of that population’s own making. Once it hits white communities, it is designated a crisis.


“OK, but where does the murder mystery come in?”

Well, “American Crime” intentionally gets the viewer invested in the farmworker plot before the murder storyline pays off, which doesn’t happen until several episodes into the season. By that point the mystery is secondary to greater crimes that the audience witnesses through Coy’s eyes and the journey of a Mexican man named Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), who illegally enters the United States from Mexico to search for his son.

Some viewers may recognize Martinez from “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Shield,” but his work in “American Crime” achieves fresh levels of gut-wrenching honesty. Huffman and King attract the lion’s share of attention in this show, but the work Martinez does is outstanding.

King, meanwhile, plays social worker Kimara Walters in a separate plotline about a runaway teenage prostitute named Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) whom Walters tries to coax out of this kind of life. Her job ends up becoming personal when Walters, who desperately wants a child, helps Shae seek an abortion and encounters the slew of invasive barriers that the state places between her client and a safe procedure.


“This all sounds very complicated for a show that’s airing at 10 p.m. on a Sunday.”

True, and “American Crime” doesn’t even introduce until much later another immigration plot that involves a Haitian woman who doesn’t speak English, hired as a nanny by a couple (Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor), whose marriage and business are crumbling.

“Let’s review: You’re asking readers to tune in to a series that’s outstanding on all fronts — acting, cinematography and script are all top-notch — but it happens to be unrelentingly depressing as well.”

That’s right.


“And it’s scheduled in the same time slot as ‘Billions’ — loads more fun to watch — and actual crime procedurals. CBS has ‘Elementary’ airing at the same time, and NBC has a new episode of ‘Shades of Blue,’ which stars Jennifer Lopez — Jenny from the block.”

You are correct.

“So, where does the whole ‘opiate’ business come in?”

Glad you asked! Should you choose to watch “American Crime,” you may be hit with the sobering realization that regardless of how conscientiously you strive to be as a responsible consumer, just by living in the U.S. you are supporting a system that turns a blind eye to what is effectively slavery — not to mention the fact that the victims (the very people being demonized by government) are doing work that no American with even slightly more options would do.


Even if you grow your own food and support a local farm, you’re still paying taxes into a system being run by people who want to cut Medicaid funding for substance abuse treatment. And you’re still in a country where impoverished and vulnerable women have to jump through humiliating hoops in order to exercise their reproductive rights.

The titular crime is in progress right now, and we're all passive accessories to it. Perhaps Ridley and "American Crime" are hoping the show will lead us to wonder if we’re too addicted to convenience to do something to fundamentally change that.

“Um . . .”

I almost forgot to mention that this season features Sandra Oh, who used to be on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Oh! Love "Grey's Anatomy." Can’t get enough of it. Why don’t you write about that one next time?”

I’ll take that suggestion under advisement.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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