“Shots Fired” a good effort
But police-shooting drama won’t burst your political bubble
“Shots Fired” isn’t the first television show to examine our ongoing conversations about police violence and racial division, but it might be the small screen’s most deliberate effort.
The 10-hour limited series, which premiered Wednesday on Fox, follows the aftermath of two racially charged police shootings in a small North Carolina town. Created by husband-wife team Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, “Shots Fired” demands a delicate balance between serious subject matter and entertaining twists that keep viewers tuning in every week.
The drama begins when Joshua Beck (Tristan Wilds), a baby-faced sheriff ’s deputy, fatally shoots a white unarmed college student. Beck, the only black officer in the Gate Station police department, had been on patrol in an impoverished, predominantly black neighborhood and says the student, Jesse Carr, reached for his firearm after he stopped him on suspicion of dealing or buying drugs.
The Department of Justice sends in special prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and cop-turned-investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) to scrutinize the shooting. In the interest of optics, both Preston and Ashe are black. As they navigate their new surroundings, they discover that a black teenager named Joey Campbell had been killed weeks earlier, but his death has drawn little attention outside of his community, where people believe he was killed by the cops. Their investigation — and the mystery at the center of the show — deepens when Ashe and Preston identify a possible link between the two cases.
“Shots Fired” is thoughtful and ambitious, but dutiful in a way that renders its social commentary less compelling than, say, that of “American Crime.” For three seasons, ABC’s anthology series has tackled various facets of social injustice, and its success lies in its ability to explore the aspirations, fears and internal conflicts of the people involved. “Shots Fired” has tender, complex moments but too often veers toward the procedural, with a dash of soap suds thrown in for good measure.
Lathan, who starred in Prince-Bythewood’s beloved 2000 film “Love & Basketball,” and James lead a talented ensemble cast that features Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss, Stephen Moyer, Jill Hennessy and Dennis Haysbert. The acting is top-notch, but the show sometimes stretches itself too thin — darting in and out of everyone’s homes and workplaces instead of lingering in a select few.
Ashe, haunted by her own past in law enforcement, has anger issues that exacerbate a raging custody war with her ex. Preston can’t compete with his NFL star brother when it comes to their sports-obsessed father (Haysbert). He also begins an ethically questionable relationship that appears to be little more than a hashtag friendly plot device. And the show unnecessarily establishes a will-they-won’t-they tension between Ashe and Preston.
“Shots Fired” is well versed in the Black Lives Matter movement and the legacy of injustice that inspired it. The series invokes the deaths of unarmed black men, women and children — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and so many others — but also asks us to consider the implications of private prisons, mass incarceration, poverty, inequality in education and lack of diversity in local police departments.
One of the show’s most striking portraits is Joey’s grieving mother, Shameeka (DeWanda Wise, in a standout performance), who — unlike Jesse’s mother (Hennessy) — always feared for her son’s life. Her heartbreak is compounded by the ever-present threat of his younger brother Shawn (Kylen Davis) meeting a similar fate.
Hunt plays the state’s up-for-reelection governor, who faces criticism for her uneven responses to Jesse and Joey’s deaths. Her good intentions are overshadowed by photo ops and uneasy political alliances. In a telling exchange with Janae James (“Underground’s” Aisha Hinds), a street-smart pastor and activist, the governor extoextols virtues of political compromise. “You make deals in order to make progress,” she tells Janae, reminding her that she doesn’t “want another Ferguson.”
“Ferguson was a tragedy, a rallying cry that spawned a movement, a movement still alive today,” Janae says. “Have you ever considered that maybe I do want another Ferguson?”
“Shots Fired” isn’t subtle, which puts it in contrast with other television efforts to grapple with similar issues. On the ABC sitcom “Blackish,” for example, an episode about police brutality was buoyed by an emotional, honest and intimate conversation among members of a multigenerational family. On Donald Glover’s acclaimed FX series, “Atlanta,” the threat of police violence was an undercurrent that fueled satire and suspense, but never felt like the subject of a Very Special Episode. It left a mark without hitting us over the head.
How heavy the show’s hand feels probably depends on where you stand on the issues. “Shots Fired” isn’t going to change your mind. But it also reflects an increasingly relevant question faced by television viewers: How much do we want our entertainment to resemble real life?
Sanaa Lathan in “Shots Fired,” a drama that debuted this week on Fox.