Early in the Season 3 premiere of the anthology series American Crime, airing on Sunday, social worker Kimara Walters (Regina King) tries to pay her cable bill but is told that because her account has been inactive for more than thirty days, the rate will double. Throughout the exchange, the camera remains fixed on Kimara’s face; we only hear the voice of the woman on the other side of the desk, repeating the same standard phrases provided by the cable company. The uninterrupted focus on faces is a technique American Crime employs often, and it emphasizes a central theme of the new season — the attempt, by a handful of compassionate people, to make up for the faceless, arbitrary cruelty of America’s institutions.
The first season of American Crime was a murder mystery set in an impoverished, drug-and-gang-filled community in Modesto, California; the second season, set in Indianapolis, explored the fallout from a high-school sexual assault that was captured on video and made the rounds on social media. While the second was an improvement on the first, both were ambitious in scope and devastating in their depiction of failing social structures. But the third season dials up the devastation tenfold, diving into the murky and, for most Americans, invisible world of undocumented farm workers and teenage prostitutes in rural North Carolina.
Like previous seasons, this one contains several storylines that will eventually overlap. The show opens with Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) slipping through a fence in the U.S.-Mexico border wall and entering the United States in search of his missing son, Teo, who left home to work as a farmhand with dreams of moving to New York. Coy Henson (Connor Jessup), a young white man who’s addicted to painkillers, provides another lens on the conditions in the fields — he’s picked up one day by Isaac Castillo (Richard Cabral), a farm crew chief who lures him in with the promise of an honest day’s work.
But American Crime doesn’t stop there — the show attacks its subject from all angles, illustrating what desperate people will do to maintain a foothold in a weak economy. The new season also turns its attention to a tomato farm owned by the Hesby family — headed by Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones) and her two brothers, JD (Tim DeKay) and Carson (Dallas Roberts) — struggling to keep up with bigger farms that can afford to sell their produce cheap. Cutting costs means hiring more workers for less, and when Carson’s mild-mannered wife, Jeanette (Felicity Huffman), begins to question the workers’ conditions, she finds she can’t stop.
And there’s Kimara, a single woman struggling to afford her unsuccessful in vitro sessions and determined to persuade a 17-year-old prostitute named Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) to testify against her pimp. With characteristic patience, American Crime demonstrates the stifling injustice of Shae’s situation, and with characteristic compassion, gives her room to breathe, at least in the viewer’s eye: Like Kimara at the cable company, when Shae’s pimp takes her to a department store’s makeup counter, the camera stays squarely on her face as the makeup artist asks what the occasion is. The occasion, of course, is a trick, and when we follow Shae to a motel room — where her john demands she remove her makeup because “You look like you’re 30” — we never see his face.
The show’s directing style yields some amazing, naturalistic performances, similar to Friday Night Lights, which also let the actors shine by having three cameras roll simultaneously while the performers moved through a scene, so they weren’t constantly aware of hitting their marks and could concentrate on the interaction between the characters. Often, the direction on American Crime speaks louder than the writing — the first two episodes were written by creator John Ridley, who penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for 12 Years a Slave — which is unfussy, the dialogue representative of how ordinary people talk. But the directing emphasizes humanity, challenging us to look at the often pained expressions on the characters’ faces without breaking our gaze.
Often the most violent events on American Crime — which airs on primetime network TV — are blurry, in the background, while the camera focuses on the reaction of a bystander who’s usually half-obscured. In another brutal scene, we see an extreme close-up of a girl’s face as she’s being raped in a field — another farmhand says the bosses call the fields “the Green Motel” — before we cut to a wide shot of the field, where the crime is hidden among the tall crops and everything appears calm and peaceful.
American Crime’s third season is a brilliant, heartrending illustration of how hardship hardens people; how pressure on one person trickles down to another, and another, until it reaches the most vulnerable among us. Despite the show’s painful subject matter, it insists that we not only look at these people but really see them. The show is driven by an impassioned plea: Don’t get distracted by official explanations that paper over the reality of people’s lives. Don’t deny what you can see with your own eyes.
American Crime Season 3 premieres Sunday, March 12 at 10 p.m. on ABC.