Most TV crime dramas are guilty of playing safe.
They follow a familiar formula: Open with a grisly murder, introduce suspects to our detectives, demonstrate a new forensics technique that will crack the case, make an arrest, close with some witty banter.
There are exceptions — such as ABC’s “American Crime” — but the majority cling to the routine. These shows are entertaining and hugely popular, but often so predictable that they become forgettable.
“Shots Fired,” which premieres at 7 p.m. Wednesday on Fox, isn’t playing safe. This is a show that climbs up on a soapbox. It aspires to make viewers uncomfortable. It wants to make everyone think.
“The premise, the inciting incident, is that a young man is shot and killed by a police officer,” says Helen Hunt, one of the cast members. “I wish it wasn’t something that we hear every night on the news.”
Racial tension within the community will soon broil over.
It will take 10 episodes for special prosecutor Preston Terry (played by Stephan James) and investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) to examine all sides of the case — and it’s going to get ugly in this small North Carolina town in the meantime.
Series co-creator Reggie Rock Bythewood has called the series “an autopsy of a town like Ferguson.”
Co-star Richard Dreyfuss says it’s “the most current show you’ll ever see.”
But there’s a twist to the premise: The officer is African-American and the dead suspect is white.
Series co-creator Gina Prince-Bythewood believes that by “flipping the narrative” in this way, the show might be able to help viewers think about these tragedies in a new light.
When Terry and Akino are sent by the Department of Justice to investigate, their case gets a lot of media attention and hands-on involvement from the governor (Hunt’s character).
They soon get wind of another police shooting in town. But this one, involving a black teen shot by a white sheriff’s deputy, has been suppressed by the local police.
The show will examine how these two cases are approached differently by the police, the media and the public.
In a letter to critics, the Bythewoods, who also are executive producers, reveal that they were inspired by the 2013 Trayvon Martin case.
“Our oldest son, who was 12 at the time, watched live courtroom footage,” they explain. “As the world and our son looked on, the jury found George Zimmerman not guilty (and) tears of anger and confusion filled our son’s eyes, as he slowly became to frame a different picture of America.
Pundits, politicians and the American public take sides in a contest that produces no winners.
Series co-creators Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood
“While we mourned the loss of our son’s innocence, the parents of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and too many others are forced to mourn the loss of their child’s life. Pundits, politicians and the American public take sides in a contest that produces no winners.”
That’s when the Bythewoods decided to change the conversation.
“What if we put Americans in other people’s shoes just for a minute?” they continue. “A sports announcer once said he aimed to give his listeners a view from every seat in the house. What if we created an event series that did just that?
“What if we looked at the policing of African-Americans, our broken criminal justice system and race relations from every seat in the house? What if we created a 10-hour film that asked the difficult questions and sparked real conversation and change?”
That’s a lot to ask from a TV show. But why not give it a try?
- 7 p.m. Wednesday
- KDFW/Channel 4