A police officer stops a motorist, bullets fly — and almost everything that follows from that moment is contradictory, challenging and influenced by competing agendas.
That’s the premise of “Shots Fired,” a worthy and excellent new series that works as both a television drama and an interlocking array of engagements with some of the most thorny issues of our time. “Shots Fired” resists easy villains and simple answers, even as it knits its many pointed questions into an accessible narrative that is laudably brisk and generally efficient.
In many notable incidents of police brutality in recent years, there has been footage of the encounter between the cop and the civilian. But “Shots Fired” doesn’t depict that moment: As it follows several characters affected by and understandably agitated by the incident, we hear versions of what happened, but viewers don’t get to see it unfold.
What the audience does see hews to a number of cop-drama conventions, which is a compliment, not a complaint. For instance, the investigators who’ve been paired up to look into the death of the motorist are — in the hallowed tradition of cop shows throughout the ages — notably mismatched. The Department of Justice lawyer assigned to the North Carolina case, Preston Terry (Stephan James), is a contained, by-the-book rule-follower with his eyes on future career prizes, while ex-cop-turned-investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) is very good at her job, but she’s also a wild card with anger issues and is prone to acting out.
That said, both Terry and Akino are African-American, as is the accused cop in the case. The victim who dies in the opening seconds of the series is white.
That may not be the expected premise, given the number of high-profile deaths of black men and women in police custody in recent years. But race is far from ignored in “Shots Fired.” If anything, the novel starting point allows the drama to wring a number of intriguing and fruitful possibilities from its examinations of opportunity, influence and corruption up and down the socio-economic ladder in the town and in the state.
Soon the investigators are drawn into the murky circumstances surrounding another suspicious death in the town, and the scope of the drama continues to widen. In fraternity houses, police stations, run-down apartment complexes and well-heeled subdivisions, they grapple with a variety of secrets and uncomfortable truths about the workings of power, and dig into relationships and practices that many members of the community would prefer to sweep under the rug.
The show’s commitment to displaying a broad perspective comes with a moderate downside: “Shots Fired, in its earnest attempts to leave no stone unturned, sometimes takes on more storylines and characters than it can adequately service. Akino is battling her ex regarding custody of their young daughter, and Terry has family issues of his own, but those subplots are rarely the strongest elements of the drama. The drama also now and then takes sharp turns that aren’t necessarily set up as smoothly as they could be, and some actors, especially those who are only occasionally seen on screen, struggle to give their characters depth (or accents that don’t wander all over the Mason-Dixon line).
Yet these minor hiccups don’t impede the drama’s overall trajectory. “Shots Fired” gets richer and more suspenseful as it builds up a head of steam, and certain performances take on even more poignance and detail as the first six episodes unfold. Aisha Hinds is a particular standout as a local minister who harnesses her flock and social media to get the town’s protests on the national radar. Pastor Janae James’ agenda isn’t always clear, especially to the mothers of two local youths whose deaths roiled the community, but James’ charisma and commitment are magnetic to witness.
As the mothers of the dead young men, DeWanda Wise and Jill Hennessy are particularly fantastic; the quiet resignation of their grief can be devastating. At one point, the women bond over their hatred of the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I didn’t lose him,” Hennessy’s character replies at one point. “He was murdered.”
Whether the deaths of those young men were in fact murder; whether a police department’s lone black cop can be effective when all of his colleagues are white; whether school reform can slow down the flow of mostly black men and women to (profitable) prisons; whether citizens want to truly examine the root causes of unrest and resistance in poor communities or just put a tight lid on anger: These are the kinds of questions “Shots Fired” examines with both clarity of purpose and respect for ambiguity.
Co-creator Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed the first and eighth episodes, and her fellow directors also examine, with immediacy and a great deal of visceral force, what it’s like to be pulled over by the cops — and what that experience is like for the cops who face that potential danger every single day. “Shots Fired” doesn’t vilify cops, nor does it minimize the profound effect they can have on the lives of those they have sworn to serve and protect.
Fox has billed “Shots Fired” as a “limited series,” which isn’t necessarily a bad idea; the quest to tell a more-or-less complete story of race, justice and law enforcement in one fictional American town is part of what gives the drama a sense of forward momentum. But one hopes Prince-Bythewood and co-creator Reggie Rock Bythewood are not done making television. If “Shots Fired” were the first entry in a topical anthology series, that would be welcome news indeed.