‘Shots Fired’: Police Shootings Get the Primetime TV Treatment

FOX’s topical new series flips the script, exploring what happens when a black cop shoots an unarmed white man in a racially charged community.

The gunshots happen right away. A stunned cop stands over the body of the unarmed young man his bullets just killed. Neighbors start coming out of their houses to examine the scene, take out their cellphones, and begin filming.

The opening scene of the new limited series Shots Fired could be ripped from so many real-life headlines, the challenge is choosing which one.

Broadcast TV has famously struggled against prestige cable dramas in terms of the content it can show. Sure, the lines have been blurred. Last week’s episode of Scandal saw someone shot in the head and blood splattered on the wall next to him. Depending on who you ask, a clear view of Milo Ventimiglia’s butt in the early moments of This Is Us may deserve credit entirely for that show’s success.

Still, This Is Us is a far cry from Game of Thrones. So what broadcast does have at its disposal—and what it’s admirably, cleverly, and to its credit, expertly used in recent seasons—is a broad, mainstream reach, and issues to reach with.

Sometimes those issues are folded somewhat seamlessly into a soapier, splashier plot, as the aforementioned Scandal and This Is Us both have done. Or tempered with laughs, as with Black-ish, Modern Family, or The Carmichael Show.

But lately, those issues have been the point, with limited series that afford time to explore them from multiple perspectives, classes, and prejudices. ABC mastered this with American Crime, now in its third season, and, starting Wednesday night, FOX launches its own attempt with Shots Fired.

The series hails from husband-and-wife creative team Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the latter the writer-director behind the woefully underappreciated Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. It puts a provocative spin on the headlines we’ve become alternately invigorated and desensitized by as a culture.

In a majority black jurisdiction in North Carolina, the entire local police force is made up of white officers, except for one. That one officer, Tristan Mack Wilds’s Deputy Joshua Beck, is the officer responsible for the shooting that kicks off the series. The victim is an unarmed white boy.

Deputy Beck pulls over the boy, a college student who grew up in the area and attends NC State, because, as he says, when a white male is driving in that particular all-black neighborhood (referred to as “The Tour” later in the series by white cops who view policing it akin to a stint at war) he suspects he is a drug dealer. In other words, Deputy Beck racially profiled him.

The Department of Justice frets that they don’t want “another Ferguson” and sends a special prosecutor, Stephan James’s Preston Terry, and independent investigator Ashe Akino, played by Prince-Bythewood’s early muse Sanaa Lathan, to parse out what happened.

Optics, as they grossly always are in these cases, are of the utmost importance. Though he’s young, Preston is chosen because he’s black, and only a black prosecutor could indict a black cop, the department says, without starting riots.

Preston and Ashe are given a warm greeting by North Carolina’s Governor Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt), whose eagerness for answers is quickly revealed to be motivated by fear over how the racial unrest caused by the shooting and the government’s response might affect her re-election chances.

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Battling her public perception as the state’s first female governor, her own political ambitions, and her instinct for compassion, Governor Eamons quickly becomes one of the show’s most interesting characters. Hunt deftly juggles your suspicions of duplicity and your admiration of her earnestness with an assured, calculated performance.

Though the crass and inhuman ways these shootings and deaths are politicized is a major and vital concern of Shots Fired, this isn’t a show about Governor Eamons. It’s a show about the lives who are taken in police shootings, who is at fault, and whether justice will be served.

To that regard, when Preston and Ashe begin investigating the incident with Deputy Beck and the white boy, they discover that a short time before they were sent to North Carolina, a black teenager was killed in the same neighborhood. That murder was never investigated.

Angry members of the black community blame race for the fact that the killing of a black boy goes unnoticed, but the killing of a white one captures the attention of the Department of Justice, the governor, and all the news cameras and media.

Preston and Ashe rule that in order to determine what’s going on in the town—Is the police force corrupt? Racist?—they’ll have to investigate both killings, though there are plenty of people trying to prevent them from getting answers in either case.

In a way—and it’s sad that this is a truth—flipping the race narrative is an effective tool in broadening the scope and pathos of the show, bringing the pain, frustration, anxiety, injustice of a needless racial shooting to communities that haven’t been forced to know those things.

The strength of Shots Fired is in its willingness to pause the often dizzying pace of Preston and Terry’s investigation to let the more emotional human moments simmer.

Jill Hennessy does great work in those scenes as the deceased boy’s mother. When Ashe expresses her condolences for her loss, Hennessy’s Alicia Carr responds, “I didn’t lose him. He was murdered.”

DeWanda Wise, who plays Shameeka Campbell, the mother of the black boy who was killed, conveys the volatile kaleidoscope of emotions a parent might feel in a time like this: a desire to trust and demand answers, but also an instinct to distrust and resign oneself to being ignored.

There’s a scene in a church where the mothers meet that tugs at your heart so forcefully, you forgive if it seems as emotionally manipulative as the stunt itself. In fact, the way religion plays into both community and politics—not always with its hands clean—is one of the most interesting tangents of the series.

The word most likely to be lobbed about when talking about Shots Fired is that it’s “accessible,” which is certainly a good thing but, in the age of prestige TV and its seeming mandate to psychologically both challenge and scar you, can be construed as a bad thing.

It’s true that there is an earnestness and, occasionally, even a preachiness that can get exhausting—whether it’s from this show or any series. A speech on easing racial tensions and honoring the validity of all lives that Preston gives to press in the first episode is even mocked in later episodes.

And perhaps because its subject matter is so topical, it’s tempting to be put off by the more dated, traditional broadcast TV “tough-as-nails investigator” tropes that dot the series.

That only happens occasionally, however, and is remedied by the wounded ferocity of Sanaa Lathan’s performance in particular. She has that whole glaring into her rear view mirror while on a stakeout thing down, but also the easy naturalism that helps you understand the ways in which the investigation and the things she is uncovering get under her skin.

We only wish that naturalism was as evident in the writing, which, as the episodes unfold, introduces an unwieldy number of characters, witnesses, conspiracies, theories, and cover-ups. Maybe that’s a network TV thing, a fear of losing viewers’ attention when, really, it’s the show’s familiarity and universality that commands it.