When did North Carolina become the destination for sprawling, heavily populated, crime dramas?
The Tar Heel State is currently home to two acclaimed programs: ABC’s anthology series “American Crime,” which is now in its third season on Sunday nights, and the new Fox show “Shots Fired.” Both shows use the state not only as a backdrop/battleground to tell stories of small-town corruption bubbling beneath the surface – and the people hellbent on looking for answers – but to create byzantine microcosms of our flawed society.
After two seasons of stories mostly addressing race, the latest season of “Crime” tackles immigration. Right from the first episode, the show focuses on an illegal immigrant (Benito Martinez, formerly of “The Shield”) coming over the border to look for work. Instead of going to someplace more booming like California, he demands to go to North Carolina. We eventually find out that the man is looking for his son, who came to America under similar circumstances.
With that subplot as a jump-off point, “Crime” maps out a bleak saga about indentured servitude. Nearly every character on the show, whether they’re a U.S. citizen or not, is basically a slave to somebody or something. (Creator John Ridley already knows a lot about that subject, since he won an Oscar for scripting “12 Years a Slave.”) A young girl (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) tries to re-adjust to life at a shelter after being a pimp’s prime property. A U.S.-born junkie (Connor Jessup) gets sucked into working on a farm picking tomatoes, only to brutally learn it’s not easy getting out from the grip of his sadistic bosses. A bored housewife (Felicity Huffman) tries to be more aware of her family’s farming business, especially after several migrant workers die in a fire. But she soon discovers how dependent she is of said family after she leaves her husband.
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Indeed, “Crime” is one of the most unflinching, unorthodox, prestige shows on network TV. When I first started watching the show last year, I was surprised it aired on broadcast television. While this season may not be as strong as previous seasons, it still keeps up with the show’s cinematic aesthetic. “Crime” practically eschews every boob-tube convention in order to tell an unsettling (and usually unsettled) story that speaks more about the way we live – and the way we ignore things in order to live – than any show out there.
I wish I could be just as enthusiastic about “Fired,” especially since it’s the product of a husband-and-wife team I admire: Gina Prince-Bythewood (who directed “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights”) and Reggie Rock Bythewood (who used to write for “A Different World”). Set in a fictional North Carolina town named Gate Station, it starts off with a black cop (actor and R & B singer Tristan “Mack” Wilds) under investigation for gunning down a white motorist. That’s when a pair of black Department of Justice officials – a by-the-book lawyer (Stephan James) and a rule-breaking investigator (Sanaa Lathan) – comes to town, eventually finding out this place has many lethal secrets.
“Fired,” which airs on Wednesdays, is an OK show. However, being the Fox program that it is, it has what I like to call “Fox-itis,” where it needlessly ratchets up the melodramatic tension to the point where things start getting more tawdry and preposterous than riveting. It’s far from a subtle series; nearly every character has an agenda they hardly keep hidden. Heck, the show should be called “Hidden Agenda: The Series.”
But only “Fired” was actually filmed in locations around the state. Due to ABC parent company Disney’s objection to House Bill 2 (aka “the bathroom bill”), “Crime” was filmed in California and South Carolina. North Carolina’s film/TV industry has already been on the decline ever since Republicans in the General Assembly ended the tax rebate program in favor of grants. (Last year, North Carolina offered up a $30 million grant to fund film and TV productions.)
Since “Crime” and “Fired” are making North Carolina a prime location for topical, televised drama, this may likely be the beginning of the state not only having TV shows once again filmed here, but set here as well. After all, it would be nice to see North Carolina back excelling in the visual-storytelling business.
Craig Lindsey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org