Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

'Shots Fired': Losing my faith in topical TV drama

Zurawik on "Shots Fired": Social relevance, but maybe not social impact for entertainment TV.

I have long been been a champion of socially conscious TV dramas and mini-series.

I considered them a symbolic way for millions of us to vicariously work through our feelings about complicated social issues as we watched. The closer the drama connected to the headlines of the day, the better for viewers. I even believed such productions could change the world.

But after watching the first six hours of "Shots Fired," a Fox miniseries about two racially charged police shootings in North Carolina, I am not so sure. I am still trying to come to terms with that loss of faith.

The 10-hour production that debuts Wednesday night certainly connects to some of the most important headlines of the day, particularly for Baltimore viewers in the wake of the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.

The sixth hour of the series opens on a protest rally that feels as if it is about to get violent. The rally is in response to the death of a black teenager, Joey Campbell, in a police shooting.

The connections between life and art are hard to miss.

Viewers hear the protesters chanting, "Joey, Joey," as the camera shows a mural of the victim painted on the red brick wall of an apartment in a public housing project much like Baltimore's Gilmor Homes, the site of Gray's iconic mural.

As the chants build, the camera moves to the front of a neighborhood church where an impassioned minister, Janae James (Aisha Hinds), tells the crowd, "We ask for programs for the poor, they turn our neighborhoods into a police state. We ask for better schools, they give us prisons. We need an uprising like Baltimore, like Ferguson, like Detroit. But we need a different fire this time. We need our fire to burn down police brutality."

As violence erupts, Campbell's younger brother, Shawn (Kylen Davis), is shown grabbing a large metal trash container off the street and slamming it through the windshield of a police cruiser reminiscent of another iconic image of Baltimore's unrest.

Not that "Shots Fired" is merely a fictionalized version of real events that took place in Baltimore or any other one city. It looks at the issues of race and law enforcement through a much wider lens that seeks to capture the zeitgeist of all the police-community conflicts stretching from the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in Florida and Ferguson, respectively, through Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago.

In a letter to critics, Reggie Rock Bythewood, who created the series along with his wife, Gina Prince-Bythewood, wrote that the inspiration for the series was the "loss of innocence" experienced by the couple's 12-year-old son as he "watched live courtroom footage " of George Zimmerman being found not guilty in Martin's death.

Bythewood goes on to say he and his wife wanted to give viewers a 360-degree look at the intersection of race and criminal justice.

"What if we looked at the policing of African-Americans, our broken criminal justice system, and race relations from every seat in the house?" he wrote. "What if we created a 10-hour film that asked the difficult questions and sparked real conversations and change?"

If you are just looking for an engaging miniseries to watch Wednesday night on Fox before "Empire," there is a lot to recommend "Shots Fired."

It begins by flipping the racial component of most real-world police shootings with an African-American sheriff's deputy, Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds), involved in the traffic stop and death of a white college freshman, Jesse Carr (Jacob Leinbach). Beck is the only African-American on the force.

North Carolina Gov. Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) asks the Justice Department to investigate. And the two DOJ officials sent to do so are attorney Preston Terry (Stephan James) and investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan). They are both African American, and their race matters. They are at the heart of the first six hours.

In the course of their investigation into Carr's death, the two force a case to be opened into Campbell's death as well.

I cannot judge "Shots Fired" as murder mystery, because Fox made only six hours available.

But that was more than enough time to be impressed by the performance of Lathan as a hard-nosed investigator with deep anger issues and an ex-husband who is trying to get sole custody of the only thing that seems to truly matter in her life, her daughter.

Hunt, an Academy Award winner, is also outstanding, as is Wilds who played Michael Lee "The Wire."

But that's mainly entertainment, not sociology. Sparking what Bythewood called "real conversation and change" when it comes to race is another matter. And thinking about that is what led me to re-evaluate my feelings toward topical TV drama in general.

No matter how righteous the intentions of the producers might be, prime-time network productions like this don't get made unless they incorporate entertainment conventions and Hollywood values intended to garner a mass audience. And, in the end, those show-business elements can lead to simplistic answers as to how we can get better as a nation. 

Prime-time TV formulas dictating physically attractive leading characters, plenty of sex, bold actions, big speeches and violent conflict can turn a miniseries or drama into a diversion rather than a meditation — an hour of our lives where we can avoid any hard thinking about societal problems yet feel as if we are paying attention to them because we are watching.

In "Shots Fired," the gratuitous sex makes the first six hours feel more like a soap opera at times than the kind of drama that is going to change hearts and minds.

The two lead characters don't waste much time finding sexual partners. Terry, the attorney leading the two-person team, starts sleeping with Gov. Eamons' press secretary, Sarah Ellis (Conor Leslie), while Akino engages sexually with Terry's brother, Maceo (Shamier Anderson), a professional football player. That's more "Empire" than "The Wire."

The sibling rivalry between Terry and Maceo has the smell of soap opera, too. Terry, a Yale Law School graduate who chose the law over a possible career in professional baseball, resents his father's clear preference for the path chosen by the rich and famous Maceo, who is a show-off.

Most striking to me was how similar the core narrative of Akino's personal life is to that of C.I.A. agent Carrie Mathison's (Claire Danes) on Showtime's "Homeland" this season.

Both are federal agents with mental health issues who have been trained by the government to handle themselves in dangerous situations. Each has a daughter whom she loves more than anything else, and each finds herself separated from her daughter by officials judging her fitness as a mother. It makes for instant sympathy.

As I watched the scenes juxtaposing Akino as a joyous mom versus a hard-nosed investigator taking down bullies, I couldn't help but wonder if this was becoming a Hollywood trope in depictions of single, working mothers. The same formula of a mom with mental health issues being separated from her daughter is used in this season's depiction of Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) on Showtime's "The Affair," though Lockhart is not a gun-toting federal agent.

Beyond such cliches in "Shots Fired," though, what I think ultimately made me stop believing in the ability of socially-conscious TV to change the world is having lived through Freddie Gray and reported almost every media minute of it for The Sun.

Media have been filled with talk about policing and race since Trayvon Martin. I wrote about panel after panel, town hall after town hall, report after report. I even participated in some of the panels in Baltimore.

But, for all the concern and talk, you tell me what has really changed in this city. Or, in any of the other cities where such deaths took place.

Convictions are not the only metric of change. But for all the graphic and even live streamed videos of police encounters that ended in death for people of color, how many officers have gone to prison yet?

Six officers were charged in Gray's death during what looked like a made-for-TV movie moment starring Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby on the steps of the War Memorial.

But not one of those officers was convicted.

If Gray's death and the real-world uprising on the streets of Baltimore almost two years ago have yet to effect any significant change, how will 10 hours of a prime-time miniseries on Fox?

Watching might make us feel good by giving us the sense that we are using TV to engage rather than escape some of the harsher realities of American life. What Hollywood does best, after all, is create feel-good moments.

But prime-time network television certainly isn't the place to look for real answers on race, police shootings or saving our cities.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

 

"Shots Fired" premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WBFF (Channel 45).

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