In its season premiere, “American Crime” introduces a new character by tightly zooming in on her face and then just leaving the camera there. It’s not a technique that is new to either “American Crime” or its showrunner John Ridley, whose screenplay for “12 Years a Slave” incorporated this kind of focused intimacy to Oscar-winning effect. But it is especially affecting in this specific scene, to the point that it becomes difficult to look at the character’s face again without recalling this long, introspective moment of quiet.
She’s sitting on a chair in a mall as a saleswoman applies a grown-up layer of makeup on her. It might be a moment of excitement for another teenager, but she seems disinterested in the process. She submits to the makeup with a child’s obedience, while seemingly preoccupied with adult concern. The makeup artist’s craft becomes an act of grotesquerie, like applying lipstick to a corpse. The camera never cuts away. The audience is asked to contemplate the girl, even though she only speaks briefly — to lie so blatantly that even the audience, who does not know her, can tell something about her blithe story is amiss.
The character, we learn eventually, is 17-year-old Shae Reese (Ana Mulvoy Ten), and she is a prostitute. Throughout the episode, even when she’s talking to other people, the camera shows particular attention to her face — the inward-focused eyes and pouty, under-aged mouth. She sits in the passenger seat of her pimp’s car and turns that same face, with that same expression, on the landscape of her territory — rural North Carolina, with its dilapidated storefronts and chain hotels. We continue to watch her face after her first client, displeased with the makeup that makes her seem like an adult, brings her a damp rag and tells her to wipe it off, barely waiting for her to finish before escorting her to the bedroom.
“American Crime,” always a standout show, has run the risk in its first two seasons of skewing a little too close to the territory of after-school specials. Last season’s story centered on a rape allegation at a high school football party, made by one male teen against another. But late in the season, the show used that kernel of a story to launch into an abrupt school shooting plotline — and though, all things considered, it was handled very well, it appeared as if “American Crime’s” desire to tackle serious topics outpaced its ability to do so with subtlety. Given that the show is a unique vehicle in every way — an anthology series with A-list talent, including an Oscar-winning showrunner, on not premium cable, not even basic cable, but actually on broadcast television — missteps were bound to happen. And what was fantastic about Season 2 of “American Crime,” despite its flaws, was how boldly the show dared to experiment, both in terms of what it tells stories about and how, technically, it chooses to tell them.
With Season 3, the show has struck pay dirt — perhaps because Ridley and the rest of the cast and crew, with two years of experience, have found a way to make their unique formula work. Based on the four episodes sent to critics (of eight total), “American Crime” seems to have shifted not just its subject matter but also its storytelling device away from the dissection of a specific crime, which can sometimes lend to the lurid and bizarre, and towards a less splashy but far more relevant exploration of the interleaving and codependent networks that create what we end up calling criminality. It’s difficult to discuss anything with social commentary without invoking Donald Trump in some form or another, and Ridley told press this winter that the topic of Season 3 was not dependent on who sat in the Oval Office. But “American Crime” focuses its third season on the collapse of rural America and its citizens’ subsequent desperation — which is, these days, a topic that demands to be understood more than ever before. There is a truth-telling clarity here that feels much more vital than the last two seasons of “American Crime”; this is a story of institutional failure, not just personal guilt.
And in creating a kind of socio-journalistic fictional document, “American Crime” is aiming, consciously or otherwise, to do what “The Wire” did for the drug trade in Baltimore in the mid-‘00s. That show, like this one, anticipates that most people would rather learn about something by watching it play out through characters than reading it in a newspaper; this is what stories are for. So — more aimlessly than Season 1 and Season 2 — the third season of “American Crime” creates a patchwork of occasionally intersecting storylines inhabited by characters who only tangentially know each other. The result is a rich, awful tapestry of a landscape that is punctuated by moments of terrifying relevance, whether that is Oxycontin passed around in baggies to drifting youths or undocumented immigrants sneaking under gaps in fencing to try to get American jobs.
The primary focus of Season 3 is to illustrate a pervasive, debilitating lack of options for the fictional residents of Alamance County, North Carolina. Foreign competition threatens local farms. Their desperation for cheap work fuels demand for undocumented migrant workers — a vulnerable population that is easily taken advantage of. The lack of job opportunities fuels sex work and addiction for the county’s teenagers. The state’s strict abortion access laws saddle young women with babies they don’t want or can’t afford. The county offers both mansions populated by foreign au pairs, modestly successful farmers struggling to cover costs, and the extreme poverty of the migrant workers, crammed 20 to a trailer.
“American Crime” leans into the farm workers’ life in what at first seems to be a disconnected storyline, divergent from Shae’s journey with her caseworker Kimara (Regina King). Benito Martinez, who has been a regular cast member with the show since Season 1, steps into one of the season’s meatiest roles as Luis, an undocumented Mexican immigrant looking for his son. His journey brings him to the official and unofficial hierarchies of farm life, as he starts picking tomatoes and squash for Hesby Farms, owned by Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones). The workers are treated horrifically, of course: More than once, a worker is shown collapsing between the rows of tomato plants, and the fellow workers, too dependent on the meager cash to care, step indelicately over the prone body. It would feel manipulative if this behavior were not so well documented, already. For Ridley, there must be some kind of poetic irony to this subject: Modern-day plantations in North Carolina, where the hot Southern summer provides a backdrop for yet another form of slavery.
And as the show goes on, this is what unites so many of the characters, in different ways — a distinct lack of freedom, in a country that promises so much of it. Much more than its previous seasons — and more than many other shows on television with bigger marketing budgets — “American Crime” drives at the heart of the contradictions within the current state of the American Dream. That such a show exists not in the paywalled pantheon of premium cable but on broadcast only adds to how thrilling it is as a television show.
Of course, “The Wire” is still going to have quite a leg up on “American Crime.” By virtue of that show’s place on HBO, it could curse, f-ck, and also be very funny; “American Crime” has found a creative way of both emphasizing and bleeping out its swear words, but still, this is a show trying to tell a story about sex work without being able to depict sex. At the same time, though, I wonder if one of the reasons we haven’t seen an heir to “The Wire” on cable is because the premium elements — the sex, drugs, and cursing — too easily erred towards titillation instead of investigation. On the limited canvas of broadcast, “American Crime” has no choice but to zoom in on the vulnerable girl’s face.