'Shots Fired': TV Review | Sundance 2017

Shots Fired - Still 1 - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

Shots Fired - Still 1 - H 2017

Has its finger on the pulse, but isn't always pulse-pounding.

Sanaa Lathan shines in a Fox event series full of big ideas but also clunky mystery plotting.

A provocative conversation starter often buried in a very conventional Southern police potboiler, the event series Shots Fired had its world premiere on Wednesday (Jan. 25) at the Sundance Film Festival and will air on Fox starting on March 22.

Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood's drama is lifted by a number of great performances, particularly a nuanced central turn by Sanaa Lathan. But the elongation of a not-particularly-complex central mystery often pushes its active engagement with current events to the back burner in ways more frustrating than enlightening.

The small, racially and economically divided North Carolina city of Gates Station is on edge after a black sheriff's deputy (Mack Wilds' Joshua Beck) shoots an unarmed white college student. Eager to prevent any perception of impropriety in the case, the Department of Justice sends in ambitious Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and cop-turned-investigator Ashe Akino (Lathan) to sift through the evidence. Initially a calming force in the community, Preston and Ashe get the support of North Carolina's governor (Helen Hunt) and the local sheriff (Will Patton), but there's a distinct chill when the case begins to point toward departmental corruption — and when allegations of an earlier, largely ignored, police shooting of an unarmed African-American youngster threatens to tear the town apart.

Shots Fired takes place in a world in which Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are talking points and Prince-Bythewood and Bythewood know that they run the risk of facile irony in initially inverting the racial dynamics at the center of the drama. The instigating event may nod to a "But what if the shoe was on the other foot?" oversimplifying, but it's immediately entangled in fissures in the town and in local law enforcement, as well as the very personal motivations that Preston and Ashe bring to the case, motivations that may not exclusively be for justice in this one crime. And speaking of justice, this tumult could also undo a major private prison deal involving the governor and real estate mogul Arlen Cox (Richard Dreyfuss, once again relishing in right wing hamminess), which brings into play a lot of the issues addressed in Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, about the entrenched racism that only worsens when profits become more important that rehabilitation or even due process. The parasitic media and the conflicted clergy are among the other institutions simmering in this stew.

Sometimes Shots Fired articulates its points smartly and with pragmatism, but other times you're stuck with characters saying things like "Liberals can be racist, too," as if that weren't already being illustrated everywhere. Perhaps there isn't as much hand-holding as in ABC's American Crime, but it's also significantly less ideologically ambitious than John Ridley's drama, which should come with footnotes.

As things reach a boil in Gates Station, the tension in Shots Fired feels organic, culminating in an intense sixth episode directed by Jonathan Demme. The developing communal rift, however, is pushed along at a higher level than the murder investigation that Preston and Ashe are conducting. Over and over again, the audience is likely to be several steps ahead of two figures who are supposed to be really good at their jobs. As the two killings become linked together and the local cops become intimidating, our heroes keep being shocked, as if they've never read a John Grisham novel. The fifth episode in particular finds Preston and Ashe taking 40+ minutes to make a suspect identification every viewer will have made instantly, doing inconvenient things to follow clues that are weirdly obvious. It's the belabored mechanics necessary to spend 10 hours on a mystery that a CBS procedural would be able to solve in one. I'm sure there are some twists in store for the last four episodes, but it's all been too perfunctory thus far.

If the extra running time doesn't benefit Shots Fired as a thriller, the breathing room helps elsewhere. Starting with Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) on the pilot and going through Demme in the last of the episodes sent to critics, Shots Fired has an impressive stable of directors that also includes Anthony Hemingway, Kasi Lemmons and Malcolm D. Lee, who all contribute to establishing the atmosphere and geography of the fictional town (even if none of them can explain where the governor lives or why she's spending so much time here). This builds to the on-the-ground intensity of Demme's episode, which also has several interrogation scenes that maintain their tautness even if none of the information they yield is revelatory.

The long-form storytelling also helps Lathan build a character of real and meaningful contradictions, a capable and well-meaning professional whose past actions and lingering psychological traumas have led to a widening swath of poor decisions. Lathan is a commanding presence and, especially when the characters are butting heads, she brings out the best in James, whose Preston is less convincing when the writers can't quite seem to decide what his job description is. The rest of the supporting cast mostly falls into one of two categories: Big-name actors having fun with the largesse of their put-on Southern accents (Hunt and Dreyfuss especially, plus Stephen Moyer blissfully not using his "Sookie!" voice as a seemingly crooked deputy given fleeting sparks of humanity) and usually upstaging the rawer, more authentic performances (DeWanda Wise and Jill Hennessy as grieving mothers). The series' other breakout performance, part of what may be a breakout spring that also includes playing Harriet Tubman on WGN's Underground, comes from always welcome character actress Aisha Hinds, dynamic and possibly just a little duplicitous as a pastor who may see this unrest as the stepping stone to spurring a greater movement or more personal power.

Hinds shines even if Pastor Jenae is one of the characters most prone to announcing what the show's themes are at any moment. If America Crime is a treatise delivery system that occasionally relies on plot to get from one idea to the next, Shots Fired plays too much as predictable plot delivery system that sometimes steamrolls over its bigger ideas. Still, in its passion and in several performances, there is much to admire here.

Network: Fox

Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James, Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss, Stephen Moyer, Will Patton, Jill Hennessy, DeWanda Wise, Conor Leslie, Mack Wilds, Aisha Hinds.

Creators: Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood

Airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m.PT on Fox, premiering March 22.