“Anyone we know?” is one of the first lines of dialogue spoken in the latest episode of American Crime, regarding a fire that killed 15 workers employed by the farming company that Jeanette (Felicity Huffman) has married into. From there we begin the long arc of the episode’s central theme: desensitization from those exposed to injustice, obliviousness from those unaware of it, and the dark epiphany it gifts to those who never thought to notice it.
Compared to the constant, notable plot evolution of season 2, little “happens” by this same point in season 3: despite the offscreen fire that haunts the proceedings, the second episode opts for establishment rather than development. Shea (Ana Mulvoy Ten) moves into a teen shelter, wondering if the bondage here is really so different from her life as a prostitute; Coy (Connor Jessup) grows an uneasy, exploitative friendship with his handler Luis (Benito Martinez); Isaac (Richard Cabral) learns further whereabouts of his son; and social worker Kimara (Regina King) grows heavy doubt in the usefulness of her vocation. At the end, Jeanette learns something terrible; and we can only assume that it’s from here that the story will spill from the personal lives of its characters into the headlines of the world around them.
One hopes that this episode will be the only bit of inventory for some time, as while it remains a compelling piece of television it loses much of the momentum that the first episode initiated. Too much time is spent on the bourgeois concerns of Jeanette’s extended family, and Kimara’s low-stakes subplot about finding a proper sperm donor is an errant distraction. Shea’s story is the most gripping, and it’s the one with by far the least time devoted to it. One gets the sense that at least most of these threads are leading to a worthy cause, but it doesn’t make their viewing any more enjoyable when one considers the pace this show could be enjoying instead.
A notable bright point is Sandra Oh’s Abby, a warm presence grounded in pragmatism. She’s used sparingly and as such her bubbly wisdom doesn’t come off as unwelcome; her advice to Kimara that one needs to be a “cynic with a heart of gold” to do good in the world feels more applicable today than it likely did when the episode was being shot. She does little to move the story forward, but as such her presence is an inviting break from an episode that is otherwise narratively utilitarian.
To be nonplussed by an episode is not the same as being outright disappointed in it; in terms of cinematography, acting and overall thoughtfulness, American Crime still towers over its competition. A lull in the process of a story is not the same as outright stagnation, and almost every arc contains the promise of true, wrenching drama. If it can capitalize on the ground its built in this episode, American Crime will remain Sunday’s most valuable program.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). He has also been published in The Establishment. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.