Monday, March 13, 2017

REVIEW: 'American Crime' - The Despair of Societal Struggle Defines a Rural Community in 'Episode One'

ABC's American Crime - Episode 3.01 "Episode One"

Set in Alamance County, North Carolina, this season explores issues of forced labor, sex trafficking, immigration, socioeconomic divides, individual rights and how we are all a part of an economy that often prospers on economic oppression.

The first two seasons of American Crime opened with clear-cut crimes that needed to be investigated by law environment: murder and rape. Those were intimate and complicated looks at those central crimes and the vast community of people they affected. The third season is taking a much bolder stance with its central crime. It's choosing to depict the decay of rural working class America in 2017. Just because it's not as clear-cut as murder or rape doesn't make it any less a crime. It's a huge issue facing the country where people are struggling to make ends meet. This is a sprawling narrative that picks up on a number of characters that seemingly have nothing to do with one another. Yes, the season still starts with a 911 call. But it's also clear that this is a bold experiment for the show. It's shaking up its storytelling this season. That change is much appreciated. Perhaps a more sprawling narrative is what's necessary to make this show the best possible version of itself. The first two seasons were great. However, they were also busy and broad as well. There is a subtlety on display in this premiere episode. There is a lot of delicate work being done. I'm sure everyone will connect in some big way by the end of the season. But right now, it's fascinating to see how systemic issues built up over generations are now taking it out on so many people in so many different ways.

This season really does seem to be tackling a lot of different and divisive societal issues. It's very timely in that way as well. In this premiere alone, it touches on the plight of the illegal immigrant, the opioid epidemic, the socioeconomic crash of family-run businesses, the struggles of homelessness and the modern-day indented servitude of migrant workers and prostitution. All of these are complicated issues. The hour touching on all of them paints a bleak picture of this community and of rural America. It's not just one issue that is affecting this world. It's all of these things combined together that is making the characters question the value of the American dream in 2017. It's harder than ever to break free from a system that seems broken and destined to keep the little man down. All of these characters are struggling. Not all of the struggles are equal. They are vastly different in tone and damage. But it's a cycle of struggle that will continue to plague this community until it is broken somehow. Maybe, that's an even bigger crime being perpetrated. One that connects these characters together and demands a bigger investigation with clear prosecution afterwards. And yet, these issues will still persist through all of that. There is no easy solution to any of this which only adds to the despair and uncertainty.

The cyclical nature of these issues is abundantly on display with Regina King's Kimara Walters and Ana Mulvoy Ten's Shae. Kimara is a social worker trying to help the kids she runs into on a daily basis. She has a routine of meeting them after they get into trouble with the law, trying to find them a bed at a shelter and taking them out to eat. She's been doing this job long enough that she knows she can't get anyone to change their mind. They have to want to accept her help. So, a lot of the time the kids just get up and walk away. They return to a life of abuse and victimization believing that it's the only chance they have at a happy, successful life. That's how they've been conditioned by their pimps. They've been abused into believing there is no better way. Kimara sees that time and time again. She still fights passionately with each case. But she also has the same dialogue memorized for each encounter. Meanwhile, the narrative is up to some tricks with Shae. She believes she suffers from conditions that don't have names associated with them. She believes she's out of her body or that she's reliving events. That's a fascinating glimpse into a storyline that might add the failings of mental health in this country to the narrative. Of course, that's just speculation. Right now, it's just important that Shae believes she's been places and done things before. That may be true. It's the nature of being pimped out and endearing so much trauma and abuse. It becomes overwhelming. Perhaps Kimara will be able to help. But again, Shae will have to accept that help and there's no clear indication that she's willing to do that just yet.

Elsewhere, a family-owned tomato farm is facing pressures from bigger corporations that can deliver the products for cheaper prices. It's a huge concern in the global economy. So many products have so much competition just because there are more companies than ever before in the marketplace. Everyone is trying to deliver a product that is better the rest and made cheaper too. It's a huge struggle for this business. The three siblings - Cherry Jones' Laurie Ann, Tim DeKay's JD and Dallas Roberts' Carson - need to put the pressure on their workers to get things done as cheaply and efficiently as possible. It's a system that's impossible to sustain itself over a long period of time. And yet, it's also the reality of their situation. The issues of today aren't the same as the issues of the past when their father was running the business. In fact, it's not the only issue plaguing this family. Felicity Huffman's Jeanette married into the family but it's clear she's had interactions with these people for a long time. Her sister, Janel Moloney's Raelyn, has too. She wants to do right by Raelyn and get her a job to support her family after her husband has left. In a competitive situation, the Hesby family may have to give her that opportunity. But right now, the past actions of drug addiction is defining their decisions. Jeannette wants to do more but simply can't.

The issues at the farm are being seen by multiple angles as well. It starts at the top with the Hesby siblings struggling to keep their deals for the same prices. But it also works down to the brunt weighing down on the actual workers. It's a system that has allowed someone like Richard Cabral's Isaac to thrive. He's worked his way up. The family has been very good to him and his brother. But now, he's the one trying to lure people into working for small amounts of money because they are so broke and desperate. He preys on Connor Jessup's Coy a little bit. And yet, that conversation between the two of them is so fascinating. Coy is a drug addict looking for his next fix. But he still laughs at the idea of working on a tomato farm. It showcases his own white privilege. It showcases his belief that he's above that kind of job even though in this situation Isaac is far better off than he is because of the honest work of tomato farming. Plus, it's not even presented as a choice for Benito Martinez's Luis. He comes to the country illegal. He demands to go to North Carolina for reasons unknown. He pays his way to get to the farm. And yet, his new boss still believes he is owed because he is doing so much for him. It's a vicious cycle that makes the people trapped in it double down in the hopes of one day escaping. But right now, it's just at the beginning of this story with a lot of hard work ahead for what may ultimately be very little payoff. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode One" was written by John Ridley and directed by So Yong Kim.
  • Every season of this show has been a fantastic showcase for actors. This premiere is a little less actor-y than the previous installments. But that in no way diminishes the quality. Plus, it's great to see familiar faces return while also enjoying the discovery of newcomers. Ana Mulvoy Ten is great as Shae. I can't wait to see what happens next with that character.
  • Of course, it's hard to tell if Shae can be saved. She gets caught up by the police with Kimara as her new social worker. But she was also trying to convince a homeless girl to join her at her place and likely the business. She does so despite knowing how brutal and abusive that environment really is.
  • Kimara is also trying to get pregnant. She has been unsuccessful with that so far. Not even modern medicine is doing much good. It should be fascinating to see how this story plays while also knowing her financial situation. She's struggling to pay her bills as well - which having a baby would only increase.
  • Grey's Anatomy alum Sandra Oh makes her return to broadcast television this season too. It's just a small scene though. That shows just how sprawling and dense this cast and narrative is this season. It's likely she'll be more important in later episode as Abby Tanaka, the head of a shelter.
  • This premiere delves into casual sexism in the workplace as well. When the Hesby siblings are negotiating with a business associate, the white man looks at JD to be the reasonable one even though Laurie Ann is the one now running the business.