Photo: ABC

A general note: American Crime may be putting forth its best season yet with season 3, so if you were a fan of the first two seasons, you will not be disappointed. But these reviews are episodic in nature, so let’s drill down on solely the premiere episode, which centers around a North Carolina farming community in what is shaping up to be a hard look at rural American circa 2017.

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The season-three premiere sets up a sprawling group of storylines. The first two seasons definitely felt more contained in terms of the circles the characters ran in, while season three has an enormous scope. But that actually may help a show like American Crime, which has felt at times in the previous seasons like it is trying to do too much. Perhaps a larger scope will allow the show and its characters a little more room to breathe.

Anyway, the “main” characters are the Hesby family, whom we only briefly meet in the premiere because there are so many other characters to introduce. Cherry Jones, Tim DeKay and Dallas Roberts are Laurie Ann, JD and Carson Hesby, respectively, siblings who are now in charge of the family produce farms as their father’s health fails. Felicity Huffman is Roberts’ wife, Jeanette, and Janel Moloney is Jeanette’s down-on-her-luck sister, Raelyn, who has two young daughters and whose husband just ran out on her.

Meanwhile, Regina King is Kimara Walters, a social worker in the community who is trying to have a baby, Sandra Oh is Abby Tanaka, a woman running a shelter, Benito Martinez is Luis Salazar, an illegal migrant worker from Mexico, and Ana Mulvoy-Ten is Shae, a teenage prostitute. The theme of the season is human trafficking and slavery—not the Civil War era slavery that the word conjures up, but the just-as-nefarious, yet-not-as-documented slavery still happening 250 years later. But there is also a healthy dose of poverty and drug addiction thrown in, which are not at all out of place in the rural setting.

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The premiere is much more low-key than in previous seasons. True to the title of the show, seasons one and two started off with very clear-cut crimes at their center. Season three still involves criminal activity, but rather than a murder or a rape that demands police investigation, the third season focuses on crimes that exist more in the shadows—they’re harder to catch, they’re harder to prosecute, they’re harder to prove—and it gives the show a quieter feel.

Now, I realize the very opening scene is of a 911 call and shows a body in a river, but since that’s all the information we’re given about it in this episode, it still gives me a different feel from the previous two season premieres. In fact, the quiet nature of the season 3 premiere actually makes me wonder if this latest installment will somehow be even bleaker and more depressing than the previous seasons (is that even possible?), because things like prostitution, indentured servitude, poverty, and drug addiction are so hard get out from under. They’re cyclical, they often go hand and hand with one another, and they create a hole too deep for most people to ever hope of escaping.

Either way, American Crime is off to a strong start, with a cast just as stellar as ever. Mulvoy-Ten in particular is a stunning new addition as the vulnerable teenage prostitute. “Looking forward” seems like a weird thing to say since I’m certain her storyline will do nothing but upset me, but I’m looking forward to her work as an actress in the role. It’s also nice to see Moloney back on TV, especially stretching her wings outside the Donna Moss mold, and same goes for Oh of Grey’s Anatomy fame.

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I’m very curious for the show to start tying the various storylines together. Some connections seem obvious, while others remain a mystery that will undoubtedly be revealed as the season goes on. But so far, it looks to be another excellent season of the show.

Stray observations

  • “Tomatoes. It sounds dumb.”
    This line really struck me, because in just the tiniest of moments the show demonstrated a huge problem plaguing rural America. Here you have a rural white male who obviously needs money—not just for drugs, but for any number of other, legal necessities—and when offered a chance to earn $200/day, laughs and turns his nose up at the idea of picking tomatoes, and the Latino farm crew chief who suggested it points out to him how insane he sounds. There are so many things going on there, from generational differences, to white privilege, to work ethic. And we don’t yet know exactly how American Crime will explore that, but that small exchange was one of the best moments of the entire premiere.
  • Everyone is so unhappy. From the wealthy farm family to the illegal immigrant to the social worker to the prostitute, everyone’s life kind of sucks. Of course, it’s a lot easier to be unhappy when you have money (and therefore food, a roof over your head, nice clothes, etc.), so I’m not making everyone’s situations equal, but the show is apparently going to look at the kind of hardship family farms have encountered in the face of big agri-business, which, to me, is just as interesting and timely as the other situations.
  • “He’s been looking out for me since I was like six.”
    Did you catch that line, what Ishmael said to Kimara at the diner about his cousin/pimp? For me, that was the single most upsetting thing in the premiere because I think it’s implying Ishmael has been being pimped out since he was a child. A baby, really. And it’s absolutely stomach-churning.
  • This will be the first season I watch American Crime in weekly installments. The last two seasons I’ve had to save it up on the DVR and then binge when I was in the right mood, because the subject matter can be so hard to watch. Does anyone else encounter that with this show, or any other shows they find hard to watch? I’m curious.

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