The pilot episode of Seven Seconds, which premiered on Netflix last Friday, ends with the sight of bright red blood spattered against the stark white snow. It’s the blood of teenager Brenton Butler, hit by a car and abandoned on the side of the road. The haunting image is devastating.
For executive producer Veena Sud, it was imperative that the series, set in New Jersey, take place in winter, when snow covers the ground.
“That blood remains a testimony to what happened there and doesn’t go away,” she tells Paste. She also wanted to make sure the series addressed how long bodies are often left out after a tragedy has occurred. “A child could lay out there in full view of neighbors, family, mothers. It felt like that part of the story is what I really wanted to focus on. How can that happen and what message does that send to the community, to this country, about whose lives and whose bodies matter?”
In the spring of 2015, having recently wrapped her series The Killing—which ran for three seasons on AMC before moving to Netflix for its fourth and final season—Sud would turn on the television and see yet another story of a black man or child being shot by the police.
“Very quickly,” she says, “I realized this is a story I wanted to tell and I wanted to tell it in a very honest and unflinching way.”
In the ten-episode series, white narcotics officer Pete Jablonski (Beau Knapp) kills black teenager Brenton Butler not with a gun but by hitting with him with his car. Rushing to the hospital to see his pregnant wife, Pete, who is looking at his phone, doesn’t see Brenton on his bike. When Pete’s fellow officers arrive, his sergeant, Michael DiAngelo (David Lyons), convinces/orders him to flee the scene. An elaborate cover-up ensues; assistant prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) immediately senses that something isn’t right, while Brenton’s devastated parents (Regina King and Russell Hornsby) search for answers.
But why shy away from the reality of police killing black men and children with guns? Why make it a car accident?
“It was more of being interested in exploring the human story behind all those news headlines and doing a deep dive into all the players involved in these killings,” she says. Focusing on the characters and reserving judgment on them prevents the story from becoming a “political speech” Sud explains.
“It was our mission as writers from the very beginning to not judge, to simply listen, to write human truths to inhabit the skins of every single character and walk in their shoes,” she says. “There are enough headlines that tell very broad sweeping stories. We wanted to do deep dives into, how does a family deal with this? How does a man who thinks of himself as a good man and worked his entire life to be moral deal with this? How does a woman like KJ Harper who has given up on life get her soul back over the course of this story?”
To achieve that, Sud’s writers’ room featured a representative array of races and ethnicities, something she concedes “is very rare in this town.”
“One of our writers was a cop on the south side of Chicago,” Sud says. “We talked to moms who had lost their sons to police shootings. Those were the hardest times—most of us are parents. To sit with these women who have gone through the worst thing a parent can go through and to have them be so generous to share their story [of] the moments after they received news that their child had been killed, [of] trying to go to their child’s body, [of] years later still trying to find answers and feeling like the police departments are closing ranks and not giving them even a modicum of respect. All of those stories weighed very heavily on us, and it was very important that we be specific in our research because this is a very specific type of grief when your son’s death is not recognized and not adjudicated.”
KJ is a (somewhat) functioning alcoholic whose personal life is in utter disarray. Like Detective Linden on The Killing, KJ makes many mistakes and questionable decisions.
“I’m always interested in real women and not the virgin/whore thing that seems to happen a lot,” Sud says. “Or the girlfriend thing, or superwoman. I want the women I create to look like the women I know, who are brave and damaged and powerful but scared and imperfect. We talked to a lot of assistant prosecutors who are women about what it’s like to work in a very male industry and over and over these are really multidimensional, imperfect, heroic women. I think men get to be really textured and sometimes women heroes don’t, and I don’t know why. I try to make mine human beings.”
One of the recurrent and stunning images of the series is the Statue of Liberty in the background of all the action.
“I lived in Jersey City for many years,” Sud says. “Jersey City is becoming very gentrified, but when I lived there it wasn’t. It was still very working class and poor, and the irony was we were able to have the most magnificent view of the Statue of Liberty, but her back was turned to us—so absolutely poetic and very emblematic of the America we live in now. That image just stayed with me, and when I knew I wanted to tell this story without hesitation I knew it had to be in this place where Lady Liberty has her back to a certain part of America.”
Hesitant to spoil how the season ends, Sud became a bit reticent when asked what viewers could expect if there is a second season.
“I see it still being in Jersey City and Jersey City being a microcosm for any city in America with all the same types of politics and racial divides,” she says. “It’s a little bit like The Wire. We get to stay in the same city. We get to bring back the people that we’ve come to know. We get to see the next phase in the city’s life and American life vis-a-vis this place.”
Seven Seconds is now streaming on Netflix.
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 .