“Shots Fired” a good ef­fort

But po­lice-shoot­ing drama won’t burst your po­lit­i­cal bub­ble

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Bethonie Butler

“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?

Fred Nor­ris, Pro­vided by Fox

Sanaa Lathan in “Shots Fired,” a drama that de­buted this week on Fox.

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