Television is often at its best when it makes us think. And while those thoughts may sometimes be contemplating the life choices of Alaskan bush people or (more fun) the sartorial choices of drag queens competing on a reality show, it’s the ideas that deeply impact our perspective that elevate the medium. In challenging us to face hard truths, a TV show can help us see the world in a new way and one that may even bring about change. “American Crime” is one of those. It’s a series that isn’t afraid to shine a spotlight on the crime of indifference and to celebrate those few who point a light into the shadows and fearlessly follow it.
“American Crime” is not an easy show to watch. So many of the characters are unlikable people who have let their weaknesses swallow them whole. What makes the stories even more challenging is camera work that calls attention to itself with a heavy reliance on close-ups. It’s impossible to look away. The camera demands that you bear witness to the pain of drug addicts and abuse victims, anguished parents and burnt out social workers.
And the occasional long shots don’t let you off the hook. In one compelling scene this season, the camera watches the watchers, in this case a farm worker and an overseer who witness a beating from a few feet away. The camera lingers on the action until the shame of witnessing it melts away into some odd feeling of normality, as if the crushed body is a natural part of the landscape and it is time to move on, back to work. It is a captivating production choice that makes you think about the cruel violence of the man doing the beating, the baseness of the supervisor who silently enjoys it as spectacle and the resignation of the farmhand who knows he is powerless to stop it so doesn’t even try.
This season, the storyline examines different versions of indentured servitude. Told from the point of view of migrant workers, many of whom are illegal immigrants and the farm owners who knowingly employ them, as well as an underage prostitute and the social worker trying to make a difference, the series offers compelling and complicated perspectives. In one of the season’s most thought provoking questions, the storyline asks us to consider where our food comes from and how we are complicit in the dangerous practices that get it to our table.
Using a core ensemble cast including Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton, Benito Martinez and Lili Taylor, who appear in all the show’s seasons, “American Crime” creates a comfortable familiarity. It’s a pleasure to watch these actors’ excellent performances.
Will the show change your mind? Inspire you to take action? Maybe. But what I’m sure it will do is make you think deeply about something for an hour, for a day or even for a lifetime. And that is no small thing.
“American Crime” is on Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT on ABC.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.