The award-winning anthology series “American Crime” entered its third season on Sunday, and its creator, John Ridley, has very mixed feelings.
For two years, the series, with its stellar repeating cast and signature narrative intensity, has explored timely and provocative issues — racism, homophobia, culture and class warfare — with a humane directness rarely seen on network television.
But now Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of “12 Years a Slave,” is worried about how viewers will react to a third-season story line dealing with yet another heated controversy: illegal immigration.
The escalating national uproar has given even Ridley pause.
“As someone who tells stories, you want to feel there is a sense of urgency in what you’re saying,” Ridley said in a phone interview. “But it brings me no joy. I don’t feel, in being so close to reality, that we’re presenting it in a space where people are necessarily prepared for thoughtful conversation.”
He fears that the fevered pitch of the immigration debate, escalated by President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban and plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, has overwhelmed considerations of the personal ramifications and the emotional cost for families and individuals.
“How we, as a society, can come together when talking about immigration and labor is not easy,” he said. “But you can address those problems without demonizing, without removing the human element. When the talk revolves around separating mothers and their children, when you remove the sanctity of family, when you say you want to be punitive, that is not problem-solving in a human way. We should deal with it in a way that represents the best of us.”
“American Crime” will reprise its format of intersecting story lines and multiple characters featuring a formidable repertory company led by Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Lili Taylor and two-time Emmy winner Regina King, each of whom takes on different roles in each installment.
In one of this season’s arcs, a father (Benito Martinez) travels illegally from Mexico to North Carolina in a search for his missing son and winds up employed at a tomato farm alongside other migrant workers dealing with deplorable conditions and meager pay. Also working in the fields is Coy Henson (Connor Jessup), a young white drug addict hired by crew boss Issac Castillo (Richard Cabral).
(Martinez, Cabral and Jessup are also returning players. Martinez played a struggling father whose young son is connected to a crime in the first season and appeared in the second season finale as a high school headmaster. Cabral was nominated for an Emmy in the first season for his performance as a former gang member who becomes a prime suspect in a crime and played a computer hacker in Season 2. Jessup earned an Emmy nomination in the second season as the central figure in a story line about sexual assault.)
Huffman, who was nominated for an Emmy for her work in both previous seasons of “American Crime,” portrays Jeanette Hesby, a naive woman who marries into the family that owns the tomato farm. She finds herself at war with them when she discovers the shocking truth behind their wealth.
And in another arc, single and dedicated social worker Kimara Walters (King) has trouble balancing her fertility struggles with efforts to help a 17-year-old prostitute (Ana Mulvoy-Ten).
Also returning during the eight-episode season are Hutton and Taylor. Actors joining the “American Crime” family for Season 3 include Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Cherry Jones (“24”) and Dallas Roberts (“The Good Wife”), who appear in recurring roles.
“Of all the seasons of ‘American Crime,’ this season to me is really super timely with what’s going on as far as the presidential climate is concerned,” said King. The actress scored consecutive supporting actress Emmys for her separate roles, in the first season as an American Muslim woman who fights back when her brother is the suspect in a home-invasion murder, and the defiant mother of a star high school basketball player on a team implicated in the alleged rape of a male student (Jessup) during a drunken party in the second installment.
“This season we are looking at something that not only affects America but the whole world,” added Huffman in a phone interview. “There’s this xenophobia, this feeling of,’It’s you or me, and only one of us can win. If I take care of you, I won’t be able to take care of myself. Let’s close the borders, let’s kick the others out. If they’re different, they’re no good.’”
In notably dark departures from her most well-known role as harried housewife Lynette Scavo in the soapy dramedy “Desperate Housewives,” Huffman played a racist mother in the first season of “American Crime” and a driven headmistress of an elite high school in the second.
“This show has changed the face of network television,” she said. “It has shown that networks can be as truthful and risky as cable, that (the) audience is hungry for deep and engaging stories. They also love seeing actors in repertory. They love seeing someone like Regina King play three different roles in three different seasons. It lets them in on the craft of acting.”
Despite the praise for the series, Ridley acknowledged that “American Crime” is a hard sell for many viewers.
“Unfortunately, a great deal of the populace are not receptive to the things I’ve written about or talked about or tried to put into the culture,” said Ridley, who won an adapted screenplay Oscar for his “12 Years a Slave” script.
“I can’t kid myself,” Ridley said. “I guarantee that the populace who don’t have the ability to see the humanity in other people, they’re already not watching the show. They’ve had three years to get into their heads that this is not the show for them.”
But Ridley hopes that this edition of “American Crime” will resonate with viewers inside and outside its core fan base.
“The main message I always want to get across every season is that we’re not as isolated or fragmented as we think,” he said. “For people who are distressed right now, I would tell them to look at the scoreboard. We are a progressive society. In this show, we really want to remind people of that.”