We watch television to make us feel good, largely. Whether it is a sitcom where we can mindlessly laugh along with the characters, a drama which we can get lost in via someone else’s exciting (or tragic) life or even a documentary where we can learn something new or be inspired.
American Crime isn’t a feel-good show. But, it’s darn good television and one show that should not be missed. And, with only eight episodes a season – featuring a strong cast of both experienced actors like Felicity Huffman, Regina King and Timothy Hutton as well as up-and-coming stars like Ana Mulvoy-Ten and Connor Jessup – there is even less reason not to watch it.
Created by John Ridley (12 Years A Slave, Third Watch), this anthology series is a searing exploration of issues like race, social class, poverty, human indifference and prejudice. It offers a different take on crime – not the usual cops and robbers procedural we’ve been fed but an examination of the effect crime has on all the people involved: the perpetrators, the victims along with their families and friends, as well as on society.
Every season focuses on one major crime. Season One focused around a home break-in that went wrong which led to the real subject of the story: drug addiction and racial profiling. The second season was about bullying and school violence and this third season focuses on the exploitation of migrant workers and children.
By putting the lives of all the people involved under a microscope, the show re-examines our perceptions of what’s right and wrong and our concept of guilt, innocence and justice.
In doing so, Ridley also uncovers that the root cause of the crime committed, more often than not, is a long, unfortunate trail of bad choices, bad luck and bad circumstances. Sometimes people just don’t have control of their own lives and no matter how they try, they seem doomed to have a bad ending.
Don’t get me wrong, the show doesn’t absolve anyone from their wrongdoings but it forces us to stop seeing things as black and white. It also forces us to look within, for what we do or don’t do that can have an impact on the lives of the disadvantaged.
While punishment for crime is very necessary, a message on-repeat from the show is how prevention is so much more valuable.
In all three seasons, the crimes that are central to the stories aren’t remarkable: a break-in, school violence and a floating dead body. In real life, these cases often don’t make the news, even. But the stories are raw and the characters are so complicated, imperfect and well fleshed out, you can’t come away from an episode, let alone a season, unmoved.
Season Three begins with a 911 call reporting a dead body in a river which then opens up the stories of several of this season’s main characters who lead unrelated lives but whose fates intersect at some point.
One story centres around Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), a Mexican who crosses the border illegally in search of his son. He arrives at Hensby Farms where his son was employed, and gets himself a job as a crop picker there in order to locate his son. Day by day, Luis witnesses with horror how the workers are exposed to all manner of abuse by the farm crew and he gets increasingly desperate to find his son.
Meanwhile, the family-owned farm is struggling to keep afloat and is run by family matriarch Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones) who will do anything to save the business which includes exploiting the labour and forcing them to live under deplorable conditions. When a fire breaks out in the workers’ quarters, Laurie Ann’s sister-in-law Jeanette (Felicity Huffman) sees for the first time how badly the workers have been treated and is torn up about it.
She implores her husband (Dallas Roberts) to do something about it but he is reluctant to stand up to his sister and tells his wife to stay out of it. Jeanette struggles to do the right thing but isn’t sure if she can bear the cost.
Another story follows 17-year-old Shae Reese (Mulvoy-Ten), a teenage runaway caught up in the seedy underbelly of sex trafficking.
Shae was sexually abused by her father. She ran away but ended up doing sex work with dreams of someday setting up a home with her pimp. As exposed as she has been to how harsh life can be, Shae remains a dreamer who believes in her happily ever after.
Even when her pimp gets arrested and she is sent to a home, Shae remains hopeful.
Former Nickelodeon star Mulvoy-Ten is surely the breakout star this season with her poignant portrayal of young Shae.
Regina King (who won two Emmy awards for her work in the series), plays social worker Kimara Walters who helps Shae as well as a runaway worker from the Hensby farms – one of the ways the stories intersect.
The subject matter is heavy but the stories develop slowly enough for us to take it all in. Each episode ends with something for us to think about before the next one comes along, which then gives us something more to chew on. And so on and so forth.
If you invest in this series (and you really should), you have to know that there are no free passes. Every episode is unsettling and will question how you see your own life. And if you think your life could do without such heavy content, you’re wrong because there isn’t anything like this on TV and, this being the last season, there may never be.
American Crime Season Three airs Thursdays at 10.30pm on Fox Crime HD (HyppTV Ch 610).