A drama about a police shooting has the potential to be handled irresponsibly or otherwise play it too safe. On this spectrum, Shots Fired, a serial drama dressed as a procedural, is neither severe nor hypersensitive in its effort to present its versions of the truth. The series premiere, which aired on FOX Wednesday night, opens with a fatal shooting in a predominantly black neighborhood in North Carolina, where an elder white man in a truck is seen driving past Joshua Beck, a sheriff’s deputy who’s young, black, and played by The Wire’s Tristan Wilds. Gunshots follow. Beck has just fired at a white male youth in the middle of the street, in what’s meant to be a provocative reversal of real world headlines.
Episode 1 unfolds, in standard procedural fashion, as a step-by-step investigation of a tragic and potentially criminal event. The Department of Justice brings in two opposing partners to investigate the shooting: the sharp, ambitious yet stoic rookie Preston (Stephan James) and the veteran, volatile wildcard Ashe (Sanaa Lathan). The D.A., we’re told, “doesn’t want another Ferguson,” and in this political climate, they prefer the optics of a black prosecutor investigating a black officer. What complicates the case is that Beck later admits he profiled the young man he killed, presuming him to be a white kid selling drugs in a black neighborhood.
Thematically, a series of what-ifs serve as the show’s jumping off point. First, what if the cop is black? What if the victim is white? What if that kid’s mom experiences a trauma similar to that of mothers of dead black boys? What if the white mom says the same things black moms struggle to say after losing their children? Who deserves your empathy? What does justice look like? Last night’s premiere, though overly calculable at points, did well at confronting some of these questions directly and making it seem like the exploration of them will be worth us following the trail.
The concept allows the show’s creators to present mirror versions of a story we all know. The dead boy’s mom mimics what black parents say: that her son was a good kid and he wasn’t a criminal. Beck says what white officers say: that he’s a “good cop” who killed someone in the line of duty. While the clear aim is to be coarse, the familiar talking points are all here: police corruption, the imbalance of justice, the idea of cops fearing for their lives, the black community’s opposition to law enforcement, etc. (When Ashe visits the site of the shooting, she tries to reassure the black residents by saying, “We’re not police. We’re investigating police.”)
That most of the main characters wear dual identities helps in the way of empathy. Beck is young and black and works for the law but, as the investigation continues, it seems like his status as a black man (as the only black officer in his department) will take precedence over blue. Ashe is a black female officer who’s had experience. On her second day on the job, she shot an 18-year-old in the chest after mistaking his cell phone for a gun. “I reasonably feared for my life,” she tells Beck. Little faith can be placed in the characters, whose likability will likely waver throughout the series.
The episode labored in a few platitudes (maybe for the sake of exposition), and yet I fully expected this show to be a lot more heavy-handed than it is. That the series was conceived by two trusted black creators—Gina Prince-Bythewood (director of Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights) and Reggie Rock Bythewood—gives some sort of reassurance that it won’t go off the rails story wise. Still, it feels like there’s an inherent danger in the idea of the balanced perspectives that could give the wrong people the excuse to empathize with the wrong people.
At any rate, this first episode did a better job at handling the subject of police shootings than other shows have in recent history. At the end of Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black last year, as part of a heavy Black Lives Matter storyline, fan favorite Poussey ends up dying at the hands of a C.O. in a manner similar to Eric Garner’s death, and her cold dead body is left in the cafeteria for days, similar to Mike Brown’s case. It’s a plot so ripped from the headlines that it might as well have been a dramatic reenactment or trauma porn, as some perceived it. Adding to the issue, OITNB appeared to have no black writers in its writer’s room.
The previous season of UnREAL—in which the Bachelor-style show-within-the-show featured its first black bachelor/suitor—had a similar clunky execution. But there, a black writer, Ariana Jackson, was involved in conceiving the story. In the mid-season episode, “Ambushed,” a friend of the suitor gets pulled over and shot by a cop. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the UnREAL creators talked about their cautiousness with the episode. Jackson told THR, “I really worried that it would turn into something that was very whitesplaining of the issue and very paternalistic about the issue. Like, ‘This is how we will tell everybody how to feel about these situations’ [but] being too scared to do a story is not a good reason not to do a story.” Shots Fired, from what I can tell, will benefit from not being scared to expand perspectives. It’s also showing sides of the story that some people don’t want to hear.