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In a new season of ‘American Crime,’ modern-day slavery makes a potent narrative

In a new season of ‘American Crime,’ modern-day slavery makes a potent narrative
ABC's "American Crime" stars Benito Martinez as Luis Salazar. (Nicole Wilder / ABC)

As questions and arguments about equality and individual rights in America have become more complex and heated over the last few years, so too has each installment of John Ridley's Emmy-winning anthology series, "American Crime."

The first season of the ABC show revolved around race and class, the second gender and sexuality. Both featured a tragic event that forced the very different paths of the show's characters to converge. And in this world of cause and effect, where one life influences the other like a chain of dominoes, one can't escape the idea that we are all connected.

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The third season, which premieres Sunday, continues the tradition but offers the broadest story line to date.

The drama takes place in North Carolina and its theme is human trafficking, be it bused-in migrant workers trapped on farms or local teenage prostitutes farmed out by their pimps. Slavery is a subject in which Ridley is well-versed: he won an adapted screenplay Oscar for "12 Years a Slave."

"American Crime" opens with Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) crossing the U.S./Mexico border illegally in search of his son, Teo, a migrant worker who disappeared in the fields of North Carolina. What Salazar finds is a world of unchecked abuse and indentured servitude – Mexican workers live a dozen or more in dirty trailers and must keep toiling to pay off never-ending "debts" for the food and shelter they're given.

It's an American story as old as "The Grapes of Wrath," and if we're to believe documentaries such as "Food Chains," one that's being played out on farms across the U.S. today.

The family that runs the farm has turned a blind eye to the inhumane practices carried out by its managers, but has indirectly encouraged the poor treatment of pickers by continually cutting the bottom line in order to stay competitive. A tragic event compels the wife of one of the farm's owners, Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman), to investigate what's happening to the workers.

In addition to the farm story line, we meet several other characters in the first half of the series including Kimara Walters (Regina King), a social worker who counsels teen prostitutes caught up in trafficking rings. But these aren't immigrants tricked into coming to the U.S. on the false promise of a legitimate job. They are American kids with drug problems, no family and nowhere to go other than with a pimp who gives them some sort of purpose. The 17-year-old prostitute, Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), is one of Kimara's main cases.

Also introduced are furniture store owner Nicholas Coates (Timothy Hutton) and his wife Clair, (Lili Taylor) — who have problems of their own — and their French-speaking au pair Gabrielle (Mickaëlle X. Bizet) who just arrived from Haiti and will soon find out what she's gotten herself into.

Along the way, the eight-episode series folds in scenarios about a woman's right to choose, the toll corporate greed has taken on the lower economic rungs of society and how drug problems are perceived and discussed when they occur in the suburbs versus the inner city.

But this is no forced game of connect-the-dots, where topical subject matter must be tackled in a comprehensive breakdown of how doomed we all are. Rather, "American Crime" artfully follows several different narratives that end up moving through the same obstacle course but with very different outcomes.

The buildup is slower here and requires more patience than the last two seasons, partly because this installment of "American Crime" is more ambitious and covers more terrain.

But Martinez has a presence that, no matter the circumstances and shifting story landscape, keeps the first half of this iteration solidly invested in his plight. The love he has for his son is juxtaposed with the way migrant workers are viewed in America: disposable, interchangeable or maybe not at all. Invisible.

Teo is bright, too chatty, a boy who always makes those around him laugh. He is not just a migrant worker, he is someone's missing boy.

The characters are played by much of the same cast who populated the first two seasons of "American Crime," which is a good thing given the talent pool.

The drawbacks, however, come in the form of a few characters who are either a bit unrealized or out of sorts in the environments in which they've been placed. Huffman's Jeanette in particular is unbelievably naive when it comes to the business of the farm: Workers are being treated poorly? How a mature woman could be married into a farm family all her adult life and not know this seems implausible.

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OxyContin addict Coy Henson (Connor Jessup) ends up picking on the farm, initially for food, shelter and drug money. Though he serves as a plot device, a white American kid working in the fields is a hard sell — even in a fictional drama.

And King's Kimara is supposed to be a veteran social worker but seems to be plodding through difficult situations for the first time here, treading lightly in her effort to get troubled young people off the streets and into shelters and rehab programs.

Creator Ridley makes a quick appearance in the first half of the series as a farm worker rights advocate, speaking at a meeting to raise awareness. "The food on your table comes with a price that you can't see, but somebody has to pay," he says. "You can choose to ignore that, but what you can't do is be ignorant."

There's no turning away from those hard truths in "American Crime," a series that throws light into the darker corners of American society.

'American Crime'

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)

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