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Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), wearing a plaid shirt, becomes a farm laborer after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally as he searches for his son in ABC's 'American Crime.'(Photo: Nicole Wilder, ABC)
After tackling a home invasion and sexual assault, American Crime wades into the controversial issue of immigrant labor in the ABC anthology’s third season.
Sunday's premiere (10 ET/PT) opens with undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. through a broken metal barricade, but the drama focuses more on the benefits, costs and ills of the larger economic system — cheap labor at one end and low prices at the other — than border security, which played a large role in President Trump’s election campaign.
John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who created the acclaimed drama, says he decided on this story in late 2015, when the presidential campaign was in its early stages and few considered a Trump victory likely.
“Unfortunately, this story is timely and timeless. … I wouldn't say we're dealing with it in a very humane way right now (as a nation), but we're hyper-aware of it,” Ridley says, referring to a work system that can result in violence, substandard living conditions and forced labor.
Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman), left, whose husband is part of a farm-owning family, talks to a man (Gabriel Lemus) about a trailer fire that killed undocumented workers on ABC's 'American Crime.' (Photo: Nicole Wilder, ABC)
Rather than a single initial crime, the new season tackles several simultaneously. In addition to the treatment of immigrant workers, the eight episodes explore drug abuse — following a young man (Connor Jessup) whose addiction lands him in a form of indentured servitude — and sex trafficking via the experience of a troubled teen (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) who is helped by a social worker (Crime Emmy-winner Regina King).
The returning ensemble includes Felicity Huffman, Tim Hutton, Benito Martinez, Lili Taylor and Richard Cabral, with recurring guest stars Cherry Jones, Sandra Oh, Dallas Roberts, Janel Moloney and Tim DeKay.
Over three seasons, Crime has coincidentally paralleled major real-life social issues, including protests of police action and school bullying and sexual assault.
“It’s a combination of John (having) his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in America now. And, unfortunately, these American crimes are cyclical,” says Huffman, who plays her third Crime character, Jeanette Hesby, who crosses her farm-owning family by expressing concern for laborers who die in a trailer fire.
Crime addresses migrant labor from multiple angles. Luis Salazar (Martinez), a Mexican who crosses illegally into the U.S. to search for his son, experiences hardship working at a farm in North Carolina.
Cherry Jones, Tim DeKay and Dallas Roberts play members of a family that owns a struggling tomato farm in ABC's 'American Crime.' (Photo: Nicole Wilder, ABC)
“What we attempted to do is humanize that, following one person as we see it from his eyes, what it’s like to be on that journey, the dangers, the physical toll,” Martinez says.
The story is not a response to any politician and would be appropriate in any era, he says. “It could have been popular when Ellis Island opened (or during) the Reagan era. This is a great country and there is always going to be the journey of immigrants who want to come."
On the other side, the tomato-growing Hesby family faces unrelenting pressure to cut costs, including labor, to meet demand for low prices. Another business owner, Nicholas Coates (Tim Hutton), must find ways to make quality furniture under increasingly restrictive costs.
Regina King plays a dedicated social worker who tries to help victims of sex trafficking in ABC's 'American Crime.' (Photo: Nicole Wilder, ABC)
“It wasn’t about setting up businesses as straw people, that if it weren't for them none of this would have happened. … This is a family farm and they have to make tough decisions,” says Ridley, adding that increasingly price-conscious consumers contribute to the dilemma.
Although Crime explores big political issues, Huffman and Martinez say the individual stories — a woman balancing her conscience against a comfortable lifestyle, and a man searching for his son — keep it human.
“It’s lovely to be in something that (not only) answers questions but raises them," Huffman says. "But as an actor, the story I tell is small. It's Jeanette Hesby trying to see if she can take care of others and herself.”
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