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American Crime's Excellent Season 3 Is a Glimpse into Red State Blues

A side of American life not often explored comes into full view

Malcolm Venable

American Crimereturns Sunday, following up on its excellent second season with an arguably even better tale -- or rather, series of interlocking tales -- that offer a probing look at societal scabs we'd rather ignore. The timing of this story is somewhat uncanny too, as it brings the plight of illegal immigrants and opiate addiction to the forefront at a time when they're dominant in our news cycle.

If that sounds like it's just exploiting headlines for melodrama then please accept this writer's apologies: any description of Oscar-winner John Ridley's series, frankly, is bound to oversimplify how rich and mesmerizing it is. A series of live discussion groups, with folding chairs and bad coffee, would not even allow you to fully describe or process how good it is. You really just need to watch. You should absolutely watch.

American Crime's Season 3 depicts immigration, labor and addiction in North Carolina

The drama kicks off as we see a dead body -- whose, we don't know. Then there's a scene of men crossing a parched, dusty border alongside other illegal immigrants. Indeed, one of this season's most forceful attributes is its stark, bleached patina, which conveys a singular, overbearing despair that feels like a character in itself. As we focus in on Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), we learn he made the daunting trip from Mexico to the U.S. in search of his missing son. Desperate for...anything, really, he accepts work as a day laborer only to discover he's essentially been sold into what could generously be called indentured servitude but looks and smells a lot like modern-day slavery.

Benito Martinez as Luis Salazar, American Crime

Benito Martinez as Luis Salazar, American Crime

Nicole Wilder, ABC

More than it did in its last season, which saw a community unravel after a teen boy was sexually assaulted by another boy at a party, Season 3 of American Crime jumps across its characters' disparate stories in a way that does not form an easy-to-follow web of connections. And that's a good thing. The story jumps from Luis to Kimara Walters (Regina King), a working-class social worker who's devoted her life to help people in need, even as her altruism swallows her own life whole. From her cold world we go to that of beautiful young girl Shae (Ana Mulvoy Ten), who looks like the picture of privilege until we learn she's an underage prostitute, also trapped in her own misery. Connor Jessup plays a young addict estranged from his family who becomes locked into a brutal farm system, governed by Isaac Castillo (Richard Cabral). Felicity Huffman is Jeanette Hesby, who married into the family that owns a struggling tomato farm, and begins to learn the upsetting truth behind their wealth. As they've always been, the players are dynamite. But Huffman especially rings depth out of every scene with a restrained, powerful turn -- and a subtle Southern accent that could be a metaphor for the respectful way the show portrays poor whites.

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The abrupt way the show toggles between these people's lives makes it clear it'll be a minute before we understand how they're all related. It's an impressive feat of storytelling not often seen on primetime. The style is about as authentic to our lives as a fictional drama can get, and hammers home the truth that all our lives are ultimately interconnected.

Felicity Huffman as Jeanette Hesby, American Crime

Felicity Huffman as Jeanette Hesby, American Crime

Eric McCandless, ABC

There's more -- goodness, there's so, so much more. And though Ridley said at the Television Critics Association previews in January that this is not political commentary, it's impossible to watch the series without invoking politics. One huge learning from the 2016 election was what the victorious side repeatedly asserted: coastal elites have no clue what happens in the rest of the country and their problems need addressing. That's just one of the reasons this season of American Crime is a bases-loaded homerun. We'd all like to not think about the horrific conditions under which American farm workers are exploited; we'd prefer not to consider that the system that delivers us basics like fruits and vegetables is broken at many points along the route. If last season made everybody understand the dangers of so-called liberal concerns such as homophobia, racism and gun violence, this season forces us to look at the plight of farmers as they face big agriculture and labor pressure; it makes us look at the opioid crisis in white rural communities and ways illegal immigration can be devastating to a community. The suffering has been democratized for sure. Through this stellar cast and slow, masterful narration, what on paper could sound like preachy tales of the red-state working-class becomes engrossing portraits of people who deserve attention, compassion and even our help.

American Crime Season 3 begins Sunday, March 12 at 10/9c on ABC.