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It is a story that has become all too familiar to average news-reading American citizens. A young man shot down in his prime by a police officer put in an impossible position, followed by the entire country descending on a small town that asked for none of the attention. That is the core premise of mega-producer Brian Grazer's new and incredibly relevant Fox drama Shots Fired, and the resulting product is an extremely tense and poignant story that works best when it mirrors reality instead of indulging in trope-embracing mystery and conspiracy.
The first thing we hear are the shots; then we see the reality of the situation. A black police officer guns down a white teenager during a routine traffic stop, and a never-before-seen wave of national attention rains down in a small North Carolina town. To get to the bottom of this devastating event, gruff investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and Yale-educated lawyer Preston Terry (Stephen James) are recruited for their respective skills, as well as the "optics" of their black skin. As they immerse themselves deeper and deeper into the case, they find their paths coming across a broad range of players in a bizarre political game. Among these personalities are the state governor (Helen Hunt), a seemingly racist white cop (Stephen Moyer), and a pastor (Aisha Hinds) who appears to have ulterior motives. Everyone looks to be scheming for their own agendas, too.
Shots Fired knows the political climate in which it exists, which serves as both a benefit as well as a detriment. The series depicts some powerful imagery that, up until now, was more or less reserved for the 24-hour news cycle. There's a commendable depiction of racial, economic, and religious struggle in this series, and Shots Fired manages a balanced marriage incorporating the grittiness of The Wire, the dark southern atmosphere of True Detective, and the tense realism of contemporary headlines. Many things are said about the complexities of America's racial issues (as well as matters such as the prison industrial complex and education reform), and its characters serve as empathetic avatars to broach these topics from a wide variety of angles. The execution of these different angles varies, but the show is smart enough to present several viewpoints and not merely fall back on the clash of the Black Lives Matter movement against the All Lives Matter movement.
However, those benefits also serve as a double-edged sword, as the series can begin to feel a bit exploitative at times. Shots Fired places itself firmly within our real world, and it's not afraid to invoke names like Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and the entire town of Ferguson. The relevant imagery works well when the show keeps its more realistic basis in the story of the police shooting, but there's a notable conspiracy mystery subplot brewing underneath it all that doesn't quite work in the first half of the season. There's a solid, realistic story here, and it's overshadowed by the heightened drama that it ultimately doesn't need.
It's worth mentioning that the characters and performances in Shots Fired indeed help sell the underlying conflict in the series, which is wisely populated by a wide variety of personalities that embody a wide range of viewpoints, with further room left for nuance. Even characters with backward attitudes towards racism and class (and they definitely exist in this show) are given enough time express themselves in a way that feels understandable -- if not entirely likable. The only real issue with the characterization on the series is that the writing has a tendency to veer a bit too far into "soapbox" territory at times. If someone has something to say, they often dramatically monolog it while intense music swells behind them. That tactic works in the pilot, but it grows stale as it becomes increasingly clear that these characters are talking to the audience and not each other.
That said, it's the two main characters who ground Shots Fired and keep it consistently enjoyable. There's a familiar buddy cop dynamic that helps distill the complex nature of a story like this into something manageable for the small screen. Stephen James admirably (if somewhat forgettably) plays the "good cop" whose silver spoon makes him alien to the impoverished local black community. By contrast, Sanaa Lathan steals the show as the emotionally troubled-yet-capable investigator. She's easily the most three-dimensional character in the series, and one of the more captivating TV heroines in recent memory. Together, they create an endlessly watchable dynamic that works even outside of the show's racial and political context. If Season 2 goes on to another case, here's hoping they're still around.
All in all, Shots Fired is a powerful and poignant new drama that has quite a bit to say when it sticks to its core thesis. Although it gets bogged down in its more fictional conspiracy story at times and has a tendency to devolve into a series of preachy monologues, it's still a captivating tale that provides a sobering look at all sides of an issue that has plagued the American heartland.