American Crime is a jewel of a program, not only for its harrowing performances and sophisticated narratives but also for its ability to disabuse its audience of the necessity of HBO’s patented Tits-and-Viscera formula in making compelling prestige television. It flows with the purpose of classical tragedy, and as such manages to pack incredible things into a relatively limited slate of episodes with each given season. Though decidedly bleak, the show moves at a statelier pace than many of its contemporaries, preferring to inculcate the grimness of its stories through a sustained grip of emotional and ethical conflict as opposed to bursting from one titillating plot beat to the next.
The opening of season 3 would almost seem to invite comparisons to its primetime cousins, however, at least visually speaking: a shot of a corpse floating in a river makes use of the imposing country beauty that True Detective captured, immediately followed by a scene of a pack of immigrants marching through the desert which could recall something from Breaking Bad. Yet even at this American Crime is already moving beyond its influences, evoking a drama which can only come from the lives of its characters rather than the contrivances of its plot.
While season 1 was a hodgepodge of social narratives and season 2 focused on the structures of toxic masculinity, it’s clear that season 3 will be about slavery—sex trafficking, to be more specific, and the brutal indentured servitude that so many undocumented workers suffer for their place in America. Season 2 frequently inspired tears of anger during my viewing of it, and its successor clearly has no intention of cooling its heels: by the end of the episode I felt physically sick to my stomach, less to do with anything happening directly on-camera but because of the implications of the world of its characters, the grotesque inferences needed to make sense of how such a world can be. Many of these secrets, it turns out, can be well explained with frantic eye contact, or the slow pause preceding a gruesome epiphany.
American Crime has always excelled at crafting a simmering sense of dread and injustice, and in its latest incarnation this tension is more profound than ever before. Even in its most tragic climaxes I have never been more on edge watching this show than I was simply observing a sex worker sit in the passenger seat of her car and panic about who her next John will be. It’s exceedingly uncommon to experience a show with this little talking in it, but by refocusing on the pace of the performances as opposed to the information communicated the program has done a marvelous thing. Freed of excessive dialoguing, it has a path to the viewer’s emotions that I was previously not even aware had been closed off to me.
If there is one blind spot it’s in the character of the usually superb Felicity Huffman. Her accent is faintly ludicrous, and her role as mediator in a family of financially craven farming magnates feels trite in comparison to the struggles of her peers. I worry that the underbelly of this story will be so deep as to utterly swallow the drama of polite society that this program tends to excell at balancing with.
But there is so much time to prove me wrong, and so many tools at this show’s disposal. American Crime is genuinely, artistically exciting television, and season 3 is proving to be a profound evolution for what was already a uniquely daring show. To miss it would be to lose out on what could become the most important thing on TV.
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.