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Unfortunately it’s a tale that many Americans are all too familiar with: An unarmed African-American is killed by a white police officer, inciting protests, riots and lots of questions.
However, Fox’s upcoming limited series Shots Fired has turned the tables in an attempt to show an explosive look at the criminal justice system at large.
The series centers on the death of a young white boy at the hands of an African-American police officer in a small North Carolina town. Once the murder case is opened, investigators also learn about the death of an African-American boy by a white police officer and why one murder went unsolved while the other has captured the attention of the town.
“In flipping the narrative, it allows folks who don’t normally identify with characters to empathize with them, and through empathy, you can change,” co-creator Gina Prince-Bythewood told reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
“But it was also a way in because once they get down there, they discover there’s been a shooting with a young black teenager so it also allowed us to deal with these two shootings and be able to see how the community, the media, how these two different murders of these young boys are treated.”
The series was created in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder and the unrest it created in Ferguson, Missouri. Fox co-chairman and CEO Dana Walden approached exec producer Brian Grazer about possibly doing a series in that arena, and Grazer subsequently asked Prince-Bythewood and her husband and writing partner, Reggie Bythewood, if they would be interested in taking the reins.
“I was not planning to go back to TV. But this opportunity — you rarely get that,” Prince-Bythewood said.
When they began writing, the duo and the cast spoke to others involved in similar racially charged shootings, as well as individuals on the front lines of the issue such as Attorney General Eric Holder, retired LAPD sergeant Cheryl L. Dorsey and former NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Because of the real events going on across the country, the actors felt compelled to say yes. “I want to work on things that are alive in me, and the country was fire and is on fire, and these two people were writing about that, and that was exciting to me,” Helen Hunt said about her role, which marks her first TV series in nearly two decades.
Although Sanaa Lathan was hesitant to do network TV, “given the subject matter, how timely it is right now. It was no question.”
However, they also felt an extra emotional weight throughout production. “Gina had to come console me the day of the Philando Castile situation because that day I had to put on my uniform, and I couldn’t even stand to look at it. It was an interesting time,” said Tristan Mack Wilds, who plays a police officer in the series. “It turned the knob up on how intense everything felt.”
The result, according to star Richard Dreyfuss, is “we shot probably the most current show you’ll ever see,” the Oscar winner said. “That’s why as you watch this show, you’re going to be reminded very clearly of the current headlines in life.”
The series doesn’t seek to tell viewers right and wrong, but “they give you a version of the story, and you get to make the decision,” said Stephen Moyer, who also plays a cop.
Although the series is admittedly “heavy” entertainment, as Lathan called it, Bythewood also emphasized that Shots Fired is a who-done-it and why-done-it mystery series designed to “keep the audience at the edge of their seats.”
Currently, Shots Fired is being advertised as a limited series. However, Prince-Bythewood said, “We do have ideas of how it could continue.”
Grazer was equally optimistic about future iterations, possibly similar to successful crime-centered anthology dramas like American Crime on ABC and American Crime Story on FX.
“I think anytime anything is successful and is driven by characters and, in this case, accesses on such important thematics — I think if that were to be the case and be successful … it would probably have a longer life,” he said.
Shots Fired premieres Wednesday, March 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.
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