'American Crime,' 'Shots Fired' tackle challenge of topical drama

(CNN)Race and policing. Immigration. Sex trafficking. Privatized prisons. Abortion. School choice.

The major networks are tackling several hot-button issues this month in primetime series, although with decidedly mixed results.
"American Crime," ABC's version of a premium cable drama, returns with a third season that addresses Mexican workers coming across the U.S. border as well as sex trafficking.
Fox, meanwhile, will introduce "Shots Fired," a series that seeks to be equally provocative -- built as it is around the shooting death of a white college student by an African American cop, unleashing racial discord. The ensuing investigation, by a Justice Department attorney and former cop, also touches upon such matters as privatized prisons and questions about integration at the local schools.
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The contrast between these shows, however, highlights the challenges networks face when consciously trying to offer series that feel provocative and, for lack of a better term, "cable-like." Having the two premiere 10 days apart demonstrates that being topical, in an organic manner, can be a lot harder than it looks.
Because while "Shots Fired" features a strong cast that includes Sanaa Lathan, Helen Hunt and Stephen Moyer, and name-checks real-life events like the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the program winds up mostly feeling like a tepid impersonation of a quality show.
"American Crime" also proves somewhat ungainly in the episodes previewed, which take their time connecting its assorted themes. Still, there's a great deal of power in the individual plots, such as the callousness exhibited toward undocumented workers by owners of a struggling farm, teens engaging in sex for money, and a sobering sequence involving not-so-subtle attempts to sway a young girl away from having an abortion.
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The primary thread centers on a Mexican father ("The Shield's" Benito Martinez) who travels north of the border looking for his missing son, encountering various abuses by those who employ and bring people into the country. Felicity Huffman and Regina King also return as part of the show's repertory company -- the former having married into a farming family, the latter as a counselor seeking to help youths drawn into the system.
The latest "American Crime" doesn't initially feel as strong dramatically as two prior editions, but the central premise -- and the show's underlying approach to explore an issue, sympathetically, through the perspective of disparate characters -- couldn't be timelier.
"American Crime" has never been much of a hit ratings-wise, while Fox will pair "Shots Fired" with the hit soap "Empire" on Wednesdays, which should help generate sampling. In addition, the latter's plot incorporates a larger mystery and possible conspiracy that might hook viewers, even if the echoes of recent headlines don't.
Creatively, though, there's a pretty sizable gap between them. Where "American Crime" continues to soberly hit its target, "Shots Fired," however well intentioned, misses the mark.
"American Crime" premieres March 12 at 10 p.m. on ABC. "Shots Fired" premieres March 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.