The premise of Gina Prince-Blythewood and Reggie Rock Blythewood‘s new limited series, Shots Fired, arises from what I’ll call the Brigance Gambit. In the climactic scene of Joel Schumacher‘s A Time to Kill, Matthew McConaughey‘s Jake Brigance, a Southern lawyer, relays a story of a black girl being violently assaulted and at the end, asks the largely white jury (and the audience) to consider if the girl had been white. In the new series, which airs on Fox, a media circus descends on a small Southern town after a black cop, Deputy Beck (Tristan Mack Wilds), fatally shoots a white teenager, Jesse Carr, four times when the teen wouldn’t listen to him and went for his gun, or so he claims.
This is an extension of an exhausting utterance that many will find familiar. What if Tamir Rice had been white? How about Michael Brown? Would the officer in question have acted differently simply by seeing a different skin color? Unfortunately, history has told us that the answer is yes and in this, the Blythewoods have hit on some timely, if not at all new subject material. And Shots Fired adds another wrenching twist to the narrative when it’s revealed that a black teenager named Joey was also shot by the police under hugely questionable circumstances just three weeks prior to Jesse being shot, compounded by an antagonistic, threatening police force ran by the seemingly congenial Sheriff Platt (Will Patton).
Mind you, this isn’t even the main narrative engine of the series. That would be the tug-of-war between Preston Terry (Stephan James), the young attorney set to look into the shooting, and Sanaa Lathan‘s Ashe, his divorced wild card of an on-the-ground investigator. In these situations, the technical work can be immediately overwhelming while public opinion, especially that of the locals, needs to be tended to consistently as well, but the series has a clear preference for the drama of the latter than of the former. For a show about some very serious work, Shots Fired does not even seem vaguely interested in the process of mounting these investigations or nationally important prosecutions. Even when the show turns to focus more on Ashe’s field work, the writing and the direction lack even the most basic allure of a good mystery and focus more on the personal dramas of its vast collection of characters.
It’s useful, at this point, to remember that Prince-Blythewood is the director of Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, two memorable melodramas about race, sex, and ambition. And Shots Fired is ultimately more melodrama than crime story or political polemic in its story beats and in its overall trajectory. The writers are less interested in what makes Ashe a good investigator than her custody battle with her jilted ex-husband, more interested in Preston’s relationship to his sports-star brother than his knowledge of the law or the electorate, which he clearly has an interest in seducing and inspiring. For all the boldness of the conceit, the Blythewoods and their writers keep their focus on personal matters – marital strife, the price of fame, emotional instability, the weight of calcified rhetoric, family, and the racial divide.
That these subjects are expressed and explored primarily through platitudes and worn-out dramatic paradigms consistently undermines the unmistakable sincerity of the show’s creators. At one point, Stephen Moyer‘s Lieutenant Breeland responds to Ashe’s questioning of how he handled a crowd surrounding a murder by asking why the media is less interested in confronting black-on-black crime than white-on-black crime. It’s a familiar, baseless argument that the show brings up but has no interest in really tangling with at the end of the day and this becomes true of more than a few political points in the series. This ensures that Shots Fired is never particularly boring but its more pressing issues also remain at surface level.
The same goes for its more personal storylines. Though the series makes a point of making the psychological make-up of its characters obvious from the beginning, there’s little intimacy to the scenes that confront fears and desires, whether it be Ashe threatening her ex-husband’s new wife, Beck inviting Platt over to his house for dinner, or Preston quickly seducing a local political aide, Sarah (Conor Leslie). The series reveals grand ambitions early on, as much in its choice of subject matter as in the scope of the story, but its ambitions to summarize a wide-ranging community of characters also tamper the narrative’s emotional potency, as well as that of the characters.
Blessed with an extraordinary cast, who are responsible for much of what’s good here, the Blythewoods have nevertheless turned what might have been a great two-hour movie into a fascinating yet egregiously bloated TV event. The intentions of those who made Shots Fired are stridently righteous and good but in attempting to see the whole picture of race and police accountability in America, they’ve seemingly forgotten two a cardinal rule of visual storytelling: less is more.
Rating: ★★ – Fascinating Yet Flawed
Shots Fired airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on Fox.