More and more, TV criticism requires that we consider the political and social messages behind a series, even when a show presents itself as apolitical. "Shots Fired" presents a somewhat difficult task, as a show with seemingly unveiled intentions. Creators Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood clearly mean to address police brutality, killer cops who go free and racism with their new FOX show, which makes it almost impossible to review the series without expressing, in some way, one's own political leanings.
So I'll confess that I review this show as someone who bristles at statements like, "I'm a good cop," which is spoken by Mack Wilds' Joshua Beck, the black police officer who kills an unarmed white college student, Jesse Carr, in the first few minutes of the pilot. I was one of many who couldn't help but furrow my brow at the first announcements of "Shots Fired," though the moment I saw the Bythewood name attached, I knew there was reason to give the show a chance—reason to be excited, even. And the first three episodes do not disappoint.
Wilds delivers a solid performance as Beck, a character imbued with a certain amount of innocence, and also with twinges of that typical cop bravado. But the series centers on the two members of the Department of Justice investigating the shooting, seasoned detective and investigator Ashe Aikino (Sanaa Lathan) and Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James). Although this is certainly an ensemble cast, with many other characters making up the plot, so much of the series hinges on the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between Ashe and Preston. What's refreshing about the duo is that, for once, the more aggressive character—the one more likely to bend (or break) the rules (and, if necessary, the occasional limb or appendage) is the woman. And it's also refreshing to see that, as the older, wiser and more experienced investigator, she has the upper hand—and takes care to remind Preston whenever she can.
The distinctiveness of Lathan's character cannot be stressed enough. "Shots Fired" is partly successful because it takes a single event, and looks at the web of characters, political concerns, systemic failings and community issues that lead to (and feed off of) the event. Suffice it to say, there is a great deal going on and not a dull moment in these first three episodes. And yet, of everything we see on screen, nothing is quite so captivating as Ashe. She is that all-too rare, wildly flawed female character. The custody battle she's fighting with her ex sees her as the less active parent, the one who'll have to prove she has a right to equal custody. She's simultaneously fiercely protective of her daughter Kai ("Raise your voice in front of my kid and I'll give you a hysterectomy with my fist" is one of my personal favorite lines of hers), but it's easy to see why she's not the primary caregiver. Ashe's sex life is also an apt reflection of a woman who doesn't need the romantic interest and/or respect of a guy she's only planning to be with for one night. In fact, I'd argue that one misstep in the series is the choice to soundtrack her hook-up with another character (thankfully, not Preston) with the song "Saved" from Ty Dolla $ign—"She wanna get saved, I ain't gonna save her," is probably the least accurate way to describe the great Ashe. In no uncertain terms does she want to be saved; and it's going to be great to see the other ways she subverts our expectations.
Still, rather than being a portrait of a single character, or a single tragedy, the Bythewoods use "Shots Fired" to construct a portrait of a neighborhood, a community and the surrounding worlds that have little to do with such communities until the news cameras arrive. Preston and Ashe learn immediately that they're not the only ones with a stake in this case, not by far. "Shots Fired" is concerned with the bigger picture, which includes a governor (Helen Hunt) trying desperately to avoid "another Ferguson," her reelection opponent, who attempts to use the victim's mother for his own political platform, a pastor and activist (Aisha Hinds) with her own ambitions and the cops on the force seeking to distance themselves from Beck, the only black officer among them. Early on in the series, Preston and Ashe decide to begin privately investigating another shooting that never received any media attention, as the victim was a young black boy. And so two grieving mothers—one white, one black—also become a lens through which this complicated tale is told. However, with so many webs, certain characters are sure to be shortchanged, and I do hope that as the series progresses the mothers and the surviving families play a bigger role in the narrative.
"Shots Fired" will be divisive among some audiences, because—in spite of clearly wanting to be a show that highlights police brutality and racism in police departments—the stars of the show are still cops, and people working for an American system that thrives largely by failing black people. Ashe is a wonderful character, but she confesses to Beck early on, in an attempt to connect with him, that she also killed an unarmed person while she was a detective. For some of us, it's difficult to see any cop (let alone those who have killed and gone unpunished), these days, as heroes. The question remains, for me at least, whether or not "Shots Fired" can successfully critique America's criminal justice system, while simultaneously giving us main characters who operate under the system—characters who we must empathize with on some level for the show to work.
Indeed, the Bythewoods have a difficult task ahead of them. But if these first three episodes are any indication of their commitment to making a strong, complex series that captures all that is personal within all that is political, then we have every reason to believe that "Shots Fired" will make for engaging, must-watch TV.
"Shots Fired" premieres tonight, March 22 at 8pm on FOX.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu's upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.