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American Crime may be TV’s most topical show. Season 3 is notably bruising and brilliant.

ABC’s drama is a bold story about income inequality, class disparity, and the American unraveling.

American Crime
Benito Martinez plays a man who crosses the border looking for work — and someone he’s lost.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

American Crime can sometimes seem like a one-show attempt to tell all of the stories TV usually doesn’t tell.

Its characters are racially diverse, sure. But the series also embraces diversity of class, of geography, of perspective. The third season of the anthological miniseries, which debuts Sunday, March 12, is nothing short of breathtaking in the way it attempts to show every single level of economic comfort — or lack thereof — in and around a small North Carolina farming community. From migrant workers to big wheels in agribusiness, the season covers them all.

That sounds like too much for any series to tackle — particularly one that’s on a big broadcast network (ABC) and only gets a little more than 42 minutes in which to tell its story every week. (And then, summarily, just eight episodes in total — I’ve seen four.)

But this season is as big a step up over season two as season two was over season one. (Every season of American Crime tells a brand new story, with many of the same actors in different roles, so you can easily start with season three, though you should take time to check out season two at some point.) It’s grandly ambitious and socially conscious in a way that broadcast network TV dramas rarely are anymore, and its story deals with everything from human trafficking to dehumanizing abortion regulations to the high cost of fertility treatments.

In American Crime’s first season (centered on a murder), this “throw everything in the pot” approach destabilized the show at its midpoint. In season two (centered on a campus sexual assault), everything worked much better, but the ending still suffered from the show’s massive ambitions. Season three (centered on, so far as I can tell, corporate exploitation of workers) already is much more confident, unified around a single massive theme: What is the cost of your existence? Whose life do you make worse, simply by being alive?

American Crime’s greatest strength is making big, abstract concepts feel vital and real

There are two standard beefs against American Crime. The first is that creator John Ridley (who writes many episodes but has stepped back from the director’s chair a bit this season) has made a series that is often a bit too bleak and humorless. This is still true (though I found myself chuckling a few times — progress!), but Ridley’s self-seriousness has gotten easier to take as the construction of individual seasons has become stronger, the execution defter.

However, the second criticism — that Ridley and his writers often dive deep into didacticism, having characters recite what amount to position papers on what’s wrong with the country they live in — has been massively improved upon. To be sure, there are still a couple of scenes where this happens, but they’re electrifying because they’re so rare.

When the season’s third hour concludes with a rally featuring a speaker earnestly imploring his listeners — including some of the season’s more privileged characters — to think about the cost of their lives, it pulls everything together, rather than pushing the audience away.

American Crime
Felicity Huffman stars as a woman attempting to improve conditions for workers on her family’s farm.

This is, increasingly, the strength of this series: It takes big, abstract concepts you might read about in dry language in a major newspaper, and shows their real, human faces. Ridley began developing season three long before the election of Donald Trump, but the season courses with the issues that drove Trump to the presidency anyway. There’s a focus on the impossibility of class mobility, on the opioid addiction epidemic, on illegal immigration, and on the dark horrors happening right under the noses of rural America’s privileged few.

Everything in season three stems from one provocative idea: Literal slavery has ended, but we still buy and sell human beings. We’re just better at disguising it on ledgers. Migrant farm workers are kept in forced servitude. A teenage girl is pushed into prostitution. A privileged couple brings in a woman from Haiti to serve as their nanny. A woman spends lots of money to create human life in her own womb.

All of these things — even the potentially happier ones, like IVF treatments — exist on the same wavelength in season three. There is a cost and a weight to being alive, and to ignore it is the worst thing you can do. And yet because we have biological imperatives, we can’t help but try to stay alive, and even to pass on our genetic code to the future. We’re all caught in a system we didn’t create and can’t control. All we can do is try to make it slightly better.

But even here, American Crime is slightly more clear-eyed than plenty of shows. Felicity Huffman, who played more monstrous characters in the show’s first two seasons, essentially seems to be playing the human embodiment of the ineffectuality of white liberal guilt in season three. (She knows the farm family she married into mistreats its workers, but she can’t figure out a way to successfully improve the workers’ living conditions.)

And Regina King, who’s won two Emmys for her previous work on the show, is now playing a social worker — and the closest thing the season has to a moral conscience — who nevertheless realizes the sheer enormity of trying to save one human being, much less dozens of them.

Season three sometimes seems to sprawl too far — I still don’t know how at least one major storyline ties into the rest of the season, which largely centers on the farm — and it’s still not clear that Ridley knows how to end a season of television. But this thematic unity keeps the show from flying to pieces.

And that unity better circles the dark truth at the heart of American Crime. Trying to be a good person isn’t always enough. Trying to stand up for yourself or your family isn’t enough. Trying to protect the defenseless isn’t enough, either. The system is hopelessly corrupt, and any time you find one hole in it to plug, dozens of others spring up. But you have to keep trying anyway. That’s the cost of being alive and being aware — knowing things must be better, and knowing you will always fall short.

American Crime season three debuts Sunday, March 12, at 10 pm Eastern on ABC. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.

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