'American Crime,' 'Shots Fired': Broadcast dramas with a cable edge

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The new season of ABC's "American Crime," which premieres Sunday, stars Felicity Huffman as Jeanette Hesby.

It may be hard right now to imagine a conversation, much less a TV show, that could make anyone see illegal immigration in a new light.

Even the words are charged: Are people illegal or just undocumented? Can you call it immigration if the person who comes here occupies a place we might not recognize as America? And what does any of this have to do with the price of tomatoes?

I thought I knew what I thought about at least some of these things. Now I'm not so certain.

Because beginning at 10 p.m. Sunday, the third season of ABC's outstanding American Crime manages to sidestep well-worn arguments about immigration and other hot-button topics with a set of compelling, interlocking stories that challenge viewers to see in new ways the people we so often manage not to see at all -- migrant workers, teenage prostitutes, and opioid addicts -- while giving a voice to others, like family farmers and small business owners, who have reason, too, to feel ignored.

Oh, and there's a subplot involving abortion that so far is not quite like anything I've seen up to now.

This is all tricky territory for broadcast TV, which might envy cable its cachet -- especially during awards season -- but which can't afford to alienate advertisers or the broader audience. And though  the four new episodes I've seen of the anthology drama from Oscar-winning writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) suggest it's his most ambitious season yet, American Crime won't be the only outlier this spring.

Shots Fired, a 10-episode series from Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) and Reggie Rock Bythewood (Notorious) that premieres March 22 on Fox, uses a racially charged police-involved shooting under investigation by the Department of Justice to raise questions about militarized policing, private prisons, and educational inequities.

It's a timely coincidence that both shows, in the works long before Nov. 8, are set in North Carolina. The state that helped elect President Trump at the same time it chose a new, Democratic governor -- who's in a court battle with a Republican-dominated legislature -- is both part of that "real America" with which television's supposedly lost touch, and a prime example of how little that description really tells us about a place or its people.

American Crime's look at indentured servitude in the 21st century could easily have been set in other parts of this country; so, too, could the stories of Shots Fired.

Ridley's gift for making even his least likable characters fully human is again helped by a formidable cast. Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Benito Martinez, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral, Lili Taylor, and other members of the American Crime repertory company return in roles different from those they played in previous seasons.

Read more: Changing the face of American Crime

King, who's won back-to-back Emmys for the previous two seasons, this year plays social worker Kimara Walters, who spends her days trying to help young prostitutes escape the streets, and her off-hours longing for a child of her own. Ana Mulvoy-Ten (House of Anubis) plays her newest challenge, Shae Reese, a runaway who resists being saved from a situation she regards as less difficult than the one she fled.

Martinez plays Luis Salazar, who crosses the border from Mexico in search of his teenage son and instead finds a system that keeps farmworkers mired in debt to the people who are supposed to be paying them.

Huffman, who played the bitter, racist mother of a murder victim in the first season and a savvy private school administrator in the second, is now the sweeter (and considerably more naive) Jeanette Hesby, who married into a wealthy farming family whose prosperity comes at a cost she's only beginning to realize.

Dallas Roberts (The Good Wife) plays her husband, who, along with his brother (Tim DeKay, White Collar) and sister (Cherry Jones, Transparent), is running an operation that's struggling to deliver tomatoes at prices that don't reflect their costs.

Janel Moloney (The West Wing) plays Jeanette's sister, an addict in recovery.

American Crime is always playing a long game: It's never just one crime, nothing's solved at the end of each episode, and chances are we won't know how all this comes together until nearly the end of the eight-episode season. Taylor, for instance, shows up in the fourth episode, when her character, Clair, hires Gabrielle (Mickaëlle Bizet), a French-speaking nanny from Haiti, leaving Clair's husband (Hutton) flummoxed. I'm guessing this isn't going to turn out like Mary Poppins, but I'll just have to wait to see.

In the meantime, I do love American Crime's ability to keep me guessing.

'Shots Fired'

Fox's Shots Fired, whose 8 p.m. premiere March 22 leads into Empire's return from hiatus, represents more of a compromise between its hard-edged subject matter and the soapier music drama that follows it.

Stephan James (Selma) stars as Preston Terry, a DOJ lawyer who's paired with investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) to look into the death of a young white man at the hands of a black sheriff's deputy, Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds, of The Wire, where he was known as Tristan Wilds).

It may look as though Shots Fired, in making the shooter black and the dead man white, is avoiding what would seem to be the more obvious narrative, but be patient. These producers, too, are playing a longer game, one that will eventually deal with the effects on both justice and the economy when politicians' get-tough rhetoric is put into action.

Helen Hunt plays North Carolina Gov. Patricia Eamons, whose good intentions may not be able to compete with the demands of one of her biggest supporters, Arlen Cox, and Aisha Hinds (Underground) is Pastor Janae James, who's not above using the pain of two bereaved mothers (played by Jill Hennessy and DeWanda Wise) to further her own agenda.

There's more than enough drama here to go around, but Shots Fired isn't taking any chances, adding sexy story lines for Lathan and Terry, who, when they're not at loggerheads, can be found getting busy with others. The buttoned-down Terry soon ends up in bed with an aide to the governor, and the loose-cannon Akino distracts herself from drama involving her ex with an equally problematic partner.

The six episodes I've seen manage to draw connections between what we're used to seeing on most network TV police procedurals and the consequences they deal with far less often. The personal and the policy stuff don't always mesh perfectly, but if adding soap gets a few more people to open their minds, it will be worth it.