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34° Good Afternoon

‘Shots Fired’ review: Ambitious drama, but doesn’t quite master big themes

Richard Dreyfuss and Helen Hunt star in this provocative 10-part series depicting the aftermath of a racially charged shooting in a fictional North Carolina town (Credit: Fox)


WHEN | WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Fox/5


WHAT IT’S ABOUT When a white college kid is shot by a black sheriff’s deputy in a small North Carolina city, the Department of Justice calls in special prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and veteran investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) to figure out what happened. Both happen to be black (“Optics,” explains the DOJ chief).

They quickly learn of another shooting, possibly police-related, of a black kid in a housing project. They want to know if there’s a connection, but Terry and Akino (who’s distracted by a child-custody battle) get blowback from the local cops, notably the sheriff (Will Patton) and his deputy (Stephen Moyer). The governor (Helen Hunt) just wants to avoid riots, while a local activist (Aisha Hinds) wants the facts. The town also has a local oligarch (Richard Dreyfuss), who wants to build a new jail, which the governor supports.

Meanwhile, the cop (Mack Wilds) . . . waits. This is a 10-part series.

MY SAY As a fictional series based on timely events, “Shots Fired” inverts the tragic story that has dominated news (and politics) over the past few years. Shots are fired in the opening seconds, and this time, it’s a white male who lies dying by his car, a black police officer with his gun drawn. According to studies, including one compiled by The Washington Post last year, white victims of police shootings do outnumber shootings of blacks, so the pretext is valid.

But “Shots Fired” doesn’t really want to tell just that story. Instead, it imagines a scenario where two shootings — one white victim, one black victim — are linked, and occur in a small Southern city. The real story, and especially questions, flow from there. Not just of the who, why, what, when variety — the usual grist of a cop procedural, which this often is — but “Shots Fired” also insists on the cosmic ones: Why isn’t justice equally apportioned in a racially divided society? What sort of social structures cause the injustice? How does the critically important job of police work sometimes fail at the most critically important moments?

If all this sounds like you’re about to accidentally wander into an episode of “American Crime,” that’s understandable. Both share some of the same preoccupations and (yes) cosmic ambitions. Both want to tackle the big questions and explore the human dimensions behind them. Both want to get at the crux of vitally important issues and address how those are understood, or change how they should be understood. What they don’t share is equal mastery of how to go about turning all this into powerful, emotionally textured television.

You may find yourself admiring “Shots Fired” for it ambitions (I did) or perhaps wonder whether it’s always telling the story it really wants to tell (ditto). Mostly, “Fired” wants viewers to understand a point of view, which is why so many black Americans feel victimized by the police. To that end, the opening story sets up an opposition, of two deaths, and of two mothers, Alicia Carr (Jill Hennessy) and Shameeka Campbell (DeWanda Wise). They’ve both lost sons; their grief is identical. The circumstances of their sons’ deaths are not.

To explore those, “Shots Fired” then embroiders the story with real-world tangents, including a character reminiscent of the early Al Sharpton, along with references to Trayvon Martin and events in Ferguson, Missouri. There are also narrative threads that get into police corruption, school busing and the seedy intersection of big money and politics.

Meanwhile, there’s a mystery to be solved, a child-custody case to be juggled, a budding romance to be established and a lot of other points of view to be explored.

“Shots Fired” is exhaustive, at times a bit exhausting.

There is lots to admire, notably the cast. James (“Selma”) as the cool-as-ice city slicker is a standout, while Lathan, as his embittered, impulsive partner, is his equal or close second. The script by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood has some sharp writing, too.

Best of all, “Shots Fired” embraces a perspective that’s still far too infrequently embraced on primetime television. What is it like to be black in America circa 2017?

BOTTOM LINE Ambitious and intelligent, but also a sprawl that can’t quite master all the big themes and ideas.

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