Creator John Ridley’s superb anthology drama “American Crime,” which returns for a third season Sunday on ABC, has been a minor miracle for broadcast network television. It’s that rare show that strides into difficult and even morose subject matter without flinching or dressing it up. It favors empathy over momentum and ambiguity over conclusion. Even though its story arcs occasionally drift, the show takes us on an effectively written and thoughtfully performed journey.
“American Crime” is also never about just one theme. Season 1, about a home-invasion murder, presented itself as a study of the prejudices that prevent criminal justice, but it was just as much about how communities collapse in the same way that some families do. Season 2, about a rape involving athletes at a private high school, was predominantly a study in class divide but left a deeper impression as a story about the lingering damage of bias and gossip. In both cases, the crimes in “American Crime” were less about crime than about travesties and double standards — the inexorably punitive weight of society’s many ills.
Now that Ridley has trained loyal viewers to expect a layered approach to moral ambiguity, “American Crime” comes across this time as a much broader story built entirely on cues, hints and nuances. Although a viewer will see a rape, a physical assault and the aftermath of a murder (at the very least), it’s difficult to get a fix on what the central crime really is this season, because there are so many laws being broken at once.
Human trafficking would be an umbrella theme: Set in North Carolina, the story focuses on the exploitation of migrant labor in farm fields as well as the plight of a teenage prostitute. Another plot involves opioid addiction and, by episode three, there’s an additional story line about a French-speaking nanny from Africa.
Each of these tales draws on “American Crime’s” talented company of actors: Regina King, who has twice won a supporting actress Emmy for her previous roles in “American Crime,” returns as Kimara Walters, a social worker who is losing faith in her ability to help teenage prostitutes get off the streets and find a better life. Richard Cabral plays Isaac Castillo, who oversees the recent immigrants who agree to slave conditions to earn a pittance in the tomato fields owned by the Hesby family, whose heirs include Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones) and her brother, Carson (Dallas Roberts).
Felicity Huffman plays Carson’s wife, Jeanette, who overhears details about a trailer fire on the farm that killed 15 migrant workers. Astonished that there isn’t more concern or media outrage over the deaths, Jeanette starts asking uncomfortable questions about the working conditions condoned by her in-laws.
“American Crime” is quite clear about the exploitation going on (in another story line, Benito Martinez plays Luis Salazar, a Mexican man who travels to North Carolina in search of his runaway teenage son, who disappeared while working the fields), but it is also careful to subtly push the blame out as far as the average American consumer, arriving smack in the middle of the viewer’s conscience: Just how cheap do you need your tomatoes to be? (Think about it while we pause for commercials selling fast food and luxury cars.)
It’s no surprise that viewers have not turned out in droves for “American Crime,” even though critics have given the show high praise. It’s a compelling but also consistently depressing series, and, in its lack of gloss, unlike anything else on the prime-time schedule. It’s not going to help matters that this season has exchanged some of “American Crime’s” clarity for more cloudiness, which I’m sure is Ridley’s intent: He wants to show us how this leads to that, which leads to that, which leads to this, which creates a morass of injustice and crime. Where to start? (Where to end?) In a tangle of stories, “American Crime” may be speaking a much-needed truth, but its burdens may have become too heavy for most viewers to bear.
American Crime (one hour) returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on ABC.