To the credit of ABC and creator John Ridley, American Crime is still tackling the tough ones and not pretending any solution is easy.
The anthology drama and its first-rate repertory cast start a third season on ABC Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, this time with a story revolving around migrant farm workers.
It’s set in North Carolina, in a farming world that often has a disturbing resemblance to the one John Steinbeck portrayed 78 years ago in his scathing Grapes of Wrath.
Because so much of today’s American farm work is done by immigrants, documented and otherwise, American Crime also inevitably plunges into that issue. What it finds is not black-and-white, but is by any measure tragic.
Benito Martinez (top, red baseball cap) plays Luis Salazar, a Mexican who makes his way to North Carolina as a farm worker whose real hope is to find his missing son. He pays traffickers to get him there, and when he arrives, he finds his life is controlled by the farm boss, who collects Luis’s pay, deducts “expenses” and gives him anything that’s left.
For living quarters, Luis is also crammed into a small Spartan trailer with seven workers. One day, 15 of those workers die when a fire breaks out, and they are trapped in their trailers.
The fire doesn’t much concern the bosses, who see worker turnover as one expense of doing business. It barely gets a few lines in the local media.
All this makes for a sobering portrayal of exploitation and the hard lives of America’s invisible workers – the ones often referenced only when it’s convenient to demonize them as freeloaders.
Their plight, however, is only one part of the story Ridley is weaving.
He also examines the dilemma of the family that owns the farm where these workers are employed.
The Hesbys are third-generation farmers who have made a living for decades supplying local produce to grocers.
These days, however, large chains increasingly have the option of buying their products from Mexico, China or other countries where labor costs are low enough that their farmers can undercut the prices American farms must charge.
The chain with which the Hesbys deal is not identified, but their local contact talks about his bosses in Bentonville, the home of Wal-Mart.
Matriarch Laurie Ann Hesby (Cherry Jones) recognizes the severity of the Hesbys’ situation and starts quietly setting up deals to get the cheapest possible workers.
That is going to include undocumented migrants like Luis. Critical to this story, however, is farm chief Isaac Castillo (Richard Cabral) who takes in a wandering American kid with drug issues, Coy Henson (Connor Jessup, right).
While substance abuse issues and dysfunction run through the Hesby family as well, the family has a potential outpost of conscience in Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman). Jeanette is married to Laurie Ann’s son Carson (Dallas Roberts) and finds it troubling that no one seems to care about the 15 dead employees.
Meanwhile, a social worker named Kimara Walters (Regina King) has the frustrating job of trying to convince troubled young people to accept help. Her focal area seems to be teenagers who have been sexually abused and forced into prostitution, and in the early going she’s not having much luck.
As time goes by, she admits, she has come to feel less invested in the lives of her clients and more focused on the expensive process of trying to have a child of her own through in-vitro treatments.
So this American Crime, like the first two, has no shortage of internal mini-dramas.
Sandra Oh plays Abby Tanaka, who seeks to raise awareness of undocumented worker exploitation.
Jeanette has a sister, Raelyn (Janel Moloney), who is struggling to make it as a single Mom with a part-time job. Jeanette wants the Hesbys to find her real work. Trouble is, they did that before, and Raelyn stole from them to feed her drug habit.
Ridley’s strategy in past seasons has been to take troubling if seemingly disparate elements and bring them together in ways that often underscore how bad a hand many people are dealt and how indifferent the world can be to that plight.
It’s not feel-good television. In the first two seasons, it was very good television, and the third season has the elements to become just as compelling.
It’s also a credit to ABC that it keeps American Crime on the air despite its lack of blockbuster ratings. It paints its stories with a level of nuance that is too often absent even from real-life discussion.