Brow Beat

A Worthy, Trump-Era Successor to The Wire, American Crime Dares Us to See the Real America

A portrait of “real America”—and not just the parts that voted for Trump.

Nicole Wilder/ABC

In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning election victory, ABC’s president of entertainment, Channing Dungey, signaled a change in direction for the network. “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places,” she said at the Content London media summit in November. “There is definitely still room for that … but in recent history we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”

American Crime, created by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), has been an exception to that nice-cars-in-nice-places rule. The ambitious anthology drama burst onto the scene in early 2015 and was immediately recognized for its unsparing exploration of drug abuse, class divisions, and mass incarceration—exactly the kind of content Dungey suggested her network was in serious need of. In that first season, it could feel preachy and didactic, a little cold and humorless, but the show was admirably invested in the problems plaguing everyday life. And where Dungey’s “everyday Americans” was taken by many industry observers as a reference to Trump’s white working-class base—the “real America”—Ridley managed to invoke many of the campaign’s themes without erasing people of color or religious minorities.

American Crime has drawn comparisons to HBO’s The Wire from the outset. But those comparisons were often at the new show’s expense: Notwithstanding its visual panache and impressive ensemble of actors, American Crime in its first season could feel like a dour lecture, relentlessly pummeling viewers with issue-centric dialogue. The series improved exponentially in Season 2, starting from a clean slate with new plotlines and characters and shifting its focus toward LGBTQ identity, gun violence, and consent; it retained the first season’s polemical nature but compensated with richer character dynamics. By the end, the season’s ambitions became a liability rather than a strength, but at its best, the story of a gay working-class teen’s allegation of rape showcased American Crime’s astonishing potential, placing achingly human faces onto pressing socio-political problems. Its third season has perfected that formula. Through a sweeping but meticulous approach to rural America, American Crime has emerged, at last, as the true successor to The Wire—the essential TV series for the Trump era.

Like The Wire, American Crime Season 3 observes the systemic failings of a suffering American locale, but it gets out of the city and into farm country. Ridley interweaves devastating character studies that could have been plucked directly from campaign talking points: the exploitation of undocumented immigrants, the conglomeration of major industries, the invisible effects of climate change, the opioid epidemic. The show’s writers piece those stories into a collage of rural American life, a landscape ravaged by exploitation, kept in disrepair by mass inequality and scant employment opportunities.

In the second episode, social worker Abby Tanaka (Sandra Oh) lays out the crux of the season as she gives a speech to colleagues in a dusty conference room:

You say slavery, and people think you’re hysterical. Well, we’re not. In North Carolina alone, 39 percent of the state’s 150,000 farm workers report being illegally trafficked or otherwise abused. That is physical abuse, sexual abuse, death threats, and wage theft. And there’s always the possibility of exposure to farm chemicals, toxins, pesticides. There’s all that on one side. And on the other side there is an agricultural business that brings in over $200 billion into the U.S. economy. So guess which side has the edge? When you’re dealing with workers in sex trafficking, in manual labor—in any area where there is a possibility of abuse—it’s all about seeing the signs.

The monologue’s op-ed style is familiar to longtime American Crime viewers, but Abby’s speech ends on a relatively ambiguous note, imploring her listeners, onscreen and off, to see “the signs.” It’s a command directed at us—to not only soak in these stories, but to come to grips with how they all link together. As a wise show once taught us: “Everything is connected, and all the pieces matter.”

American Crime achieves immersion through arresting cinematography and exceptional performances. The former is courtesy of Ridley, who as showrunner and frequent director has set the visual template, and Ramsey Nickell, the director of photography for the first and third seasons. (Lisa Wiegand shot Season 2.) The show’s compositions are precise, often focused exclusively on a single character or image even as the action takes place off camera. American Crime’s excruciatingly omniscient depiction of North Carolina farm life—the exhaustion on workers’ faces, the unbearable heat of the sun, the abuses often captured in a blur in the background—can feel like visual journalism, a photo essay getting to the heart of a crisis. And the camera’s stillness with actors brings the show’s characters to remarkable life. When it holds on Felicity Huffman’s Jeanette—the wife of the farm’s secretive and quietly corrupt co-owner—as she realizes the extent to which she’s turned a blind eye to injustice, we’re given no reprieve from her conveyance of anguish and mounting guilt.

American Crime balances the rigor of reporting with the vibrancy of art, and in the same way as The Wire, it gives its core characters room to exist as flawed, three-dimensional human beings. This season is about how a community functions under economic siege and is carefully populated with a cast of diverse characters who all have a chance to speak for themselves: an undocumented immigrant searching for his missing son, whose journey takes him through the horrors of underground farm life; a black social worker tasked with healing victims of emotional and physical trauma; young women and gay men removed from the world of sex trafficking; a white heroin addict with nowhere else to turn, forced to endure low wages and mistreatment.

That last character is Coy Henson (Connor Jessup), who best represents the forgotten white America that partly fueled Donald Trump’s rise—a group whose power has been cast as an implicit rebuke to the left’s focus on “identity politics.” This includes Dungey’s own comments: Her network even passed on a Muslim American family sitcom, according to creator Reza Aslan, after “Donald Trump won the presidency” and ABC decided “to appeal to what they erroneously saw as some new wave of red-state Americans.”

The vitality of American Crime Season 3 rests, above all, in its rejection of that myth—its insistence on depicting the plight of farm country and arguing for inclusion in the same breath. The series manages to grant us a sympathetic understanding of Coy—as well as Jeanette’s sister and brother-in-law, who also wrestle with addictions—while testing our perceptions of his struggle. When Coy describes his near-death experiences to Isaac (Richard Cabral), his supervisor on the farm, he’s met with little sympathy. “When they were running crack in the city … they let the Mexicans die, they let the blacks die,” Isaac, who is Latino, laments to Coy. “Heroin comes into the suburbs and all of a sudden they’ve got magic powder—see, dying means something.”

Considering the way The Wire laid out the cyclical processes behind Baltimore’s urban decay and racial division over its five seasons, American Crime cannot compare in terms of breadth. But there’s something to be said for the way Ridley zeroes in on a handful of characters and gradually threads their stories together. American Crime can often feel like an urgent call to action in execution, a mere passing-through of a contemporary tragedy, without The Wire’s vérité aesthetic. But American Crime does share The Wire’s resistance to power and its commitment to incisive storytelling. It shares its textured approach to character. And where The Wire dug into the inner city, critiquing the standard media narratives and finding power in the socially mundane, American Crime does the same for the idealized, pathologized heartland that’s once again been thrust to the center of political discourse. It dares us to see the real America.