TV that tries to be important and teach us something is tricky. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being didactic and patronizing (I love Freeform’s The Fosters, but it’s often guilty of this).
So I was more than a bit skeptical when I heard about Shots Fired. The series’ executive producers, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, sent an earnest letter to critics describing the effect George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin had on their then 12-year-old son. Shots Fired, they hope, will give viewers varied perspectives—the police, the politicians, the parents, the lawyers, the witnesses, the community activists and the children—to help us all better understand each other. That’s a tall order for any series. But in the first three episodes available for review, they do a surprisingly effective job.
Shots Fired, which evokes the sprawling storytelling of ABC’s American Crime, begins in Gate Station, North Carolina, where Deputy Josh Beck (Mack Wilds) has shot and killed 19-year-old college freshman Jesse Carr (William Leinbach) during what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. But it’s not what you’re expecting: Josh is black and Jesse is white, in a town already fraught with racial unrest. At first, it seems that switching the races of those involved in the horrific real-life stories that have made national headlines is evidence of the producers backing away from their challenging subject matter, for which Orange is the New Black was criticized last summer. But be patient.
Detective Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) are brought in to investigate the case at the request of Governor Eamons (Helen Hunt). That plot might be enough to tell a typical TV story, but Shots Fired, which arrives at an incredibly anxious and apt time, endeavors to tell a larger one: One of institutional racism and how our prejudices shape our daily interactions, how good cops can get lost in a bad department and vice versa, how difficult it is to grow up, how politicians can politicize just about anything and how a parent’s love for his or her children is a universal emotion.
Initially, Ashe and Preston make no progress when questioning those who witnessed Jesse’s shooting. “You keep asking the wrong question,” Cory (Marqus Clae) tells Preston. The right question leads Preston and Ashe to the unsolved murder of Joey Campbell, an African American teen shot to death. Joey’s death didn’t make headlines, nor did it cause a special prosecutor to come down and investigate. But soon the two murders intertwine, and Ashe and Preston know they must investigate both.
Clearly, this was a production people wanted to be a part of, and the series is a veritable who’s who of TV and movie stars. In addition to Hunt, there’s Richard Dreyfus as a wealthy real estate mogul who has built his fortune on private prisons. Jill Hennessy (Crossing Jordan) is utterly heart wrenching as Jesse’s devastated mother, Alicia. Stephen Moyer (True Blood) keeps viewers guessing as Lt. Calvert Breeland as it remains unclear if he’s a good cop, a bad cop or somewhere in between. “It’s a war. I ain’t no Boy Scout. But I’m on the right side of it,” he tells Joey’s mother, Shameeka (DeWanda Wise). As Preston’s dad, Dennis Haysbert (24) is more enamored with his NFL star son, Maceo (Shamier Anderson), than the son who chose to become a lawyer. As Pastor Janae, Aisha Hinds (also currently seen on Underground as Harriet Tubman) is the religious leader who appears to be helping her community but clearly has political aspirations and perhaps employs less-than-approved methods. To its credit, the series isn’t creating saints or sinners. Most characters exist in the nebulous grey area. Like life, no one has just one motivation. Is the Governor truly trying to help, or is she worried about her next election and the political ramifications if she doesn’t?
At times, the dialogue is too affected. “How do you get used to it?” Preston wonders upon seeing a young man moments after he’s been shot to death. “I don’t know how to describe it, but you never get used to it,” Ashe tells him. And some of the subplots seem unnecessary. Ashe, who has some major anger management issues, is in a bitter custody battle for her daughter, and the Governor’s aide, Sarah Ellis (Conor Leslie), has an extended one-night stand/burgeoning romance with Preston. Three episodes in and both subplots seem like a distraction. Ashe and Preston’s investigation often has a Law & Order procedural feel, on a show that is clearly not a by-the-numbers murder drama.
But there are some small moments that truly resonate. Shameeka won’t repair the cracked floor tile that Joey broke, for instance, because it reminds her of her son. Alicia breaks down in her son’s car. These two mothers are the heart of the show.
James and Lathan are excellent anchors for the series. We want to follow their journey as they discover what really happened. Wise is another standout as a heartbroken mother desperately trying to find out what happened to her son. Wilds, who I remember as a teen on both The Wire and the 90210 reboot, plays it just right. Was his shooting of Jesse justified? Had Jesse tried to take his gun? Or is something else going on? There are no easy answers here.
For Shots Fired to achieve its goals of broadening viewers’ perspective and starting a conversation, it must first be entertaining. If no one tunes in, it won’t matter what the series is trying to say. But the drama will pull you in with stellar performances and a compelling mystery. Network TV needs more of this.
Shots Fired premieres Wednesday, March 22 at 8 p.m. on FOX.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .