Shots Fired somehow feels old and current at the same time. Production on the series started one year ago, and since then, more TV shows have given their own spin to a story about a police-involved shooting complicated by issues of race. It’s a plot that has become nearly as common as racially charged police shootings themselves, and it’s no longer the exclusive domain of police procedurals or high-minded dramas. Donald Glover tackled the subject in the season finale of Atlanta, and when the same ideas have seeped into UnREAL, a show with absolutely no claim to them, it can seem as if the culture is at its #BlackLivesMatter saturation point.
While the story told in Shots Fired can feel overly familiar at times — the racial role-reversal notwithstanding — its themes are woefully evergreen. In the second episode, “Betrayal of Trust,” the most haunting and resonant story hasn’t yet connected to anything happening at the police station. It belongs to Corey, the kid on his bicycle who gave Preston Terry a few tips about what’s really going on in this community, and was last seen pedaling away from a mysterious car intent on running him over. Apparently, he hasn’t turned up since attempting to hide from his pursuers, and given the circumstances, a positive outcome seems unlikely.
Within the past week, social media exploded with pleas to find a number of missing black girls in the Washington, D.C., area. The number of girls missing multiplied artificially the more attention the story got, but the hysteria wasn’t misplaced. As a New York Times piece from a couple of years back made clear, black people vanish far more often than most people seem to realize.
The most effective drama in Shots Fired is about those perceptions. Whose lives are important? Whose seem expendable? Those conversations usually begin when people’s lives end tragically, but the most interesting stuff in Shots Fired is about the terror suffered by the living rather than the injustice suffered by the dead. What’s life like for Shameeka Campbell, whose son was murdered just weeks before Jesse Carr? How does she cope, not only with the grief of losing her child, but with having to live inside the media circus surrounding the death of someone else’s child? And how is Corey’s family coping with his disappearance?
“Betrayal of Trust” explores those themes, but doesn’t spend enough time on them and looks at them from the perspective of the wrong characters. Shameeka hasn’t gotten to tell much of her story yet, but Pastor Janae James has stepped up in Shameeka’s stead, rallying the community to seek justice for Joey instead of giving Jesse’s death all the attention. Shots Fired takes these oblique angles on its themes because while it could be a more intimate story, it seems to be more interested in creating a tapestry of characters and making its community feel lived in. The approach is ambitious, but somehow, this show’s attempts to add depth wind up making it feel more shallow.
Much like the pilot, “Betrayal of Trust” seems like its best material exists at the periphery while trivial matters sit at the fore. That’s the unfortunate result, it seems, of trying to take a nuanced drama and bend it into the shape of a broadcast crime drama. As a result of the cop-drama constraints, there’s a ton of focus on defining the lives of the partners at the center of the case, and it’s hard to care about most of it with so much else going on. For example, as welcome as Dennis Haysbert’s presence is, is it really time to delve into Preston’s sibling rivalry with his pro-baller brother and watch them fight for their father’s attention? Do we really need weekly updates on how things are going with Ashe’s custody battle? Why so much about their respective sex lives?
Even when the episode is relatively on task, it doesn’t feel like it. The main episodic story is about Ashe and Preston’s efforts to run down the source of the viral video that made Joshua Beck look like he committed a premeditated hate crime. The source of that video and that person’s agenda are definitely important pieces of this story. But why would now be the time to investigate such a trivial aspect of the case when so few of the basic facts have been established? Preston and Ashe don’t really seem like they’re doing all that much work, so when they take personal phone calls, hook up with locals, and drop in on fancy events with the governor’s powerful friends, it’s hard to remember what Shots Fired is supposed to be about.
The only character whose situation changes in “Betrayal of Trust” is Joshua Beck. (This show’s smartest choice was casting Mack Wilds, who looks like he was born with Snapchat’s puppy filter applied to his face.) He has a gun pulled on him by Jesse’s grieving father. His poor wife spends the whole episode glued to the television coverage of the shooting even as he begs her to shut it off. Then he finds out in a dinner with the sheriff that he’s been dropped by the police union that represents him, so while Beck still has his job, he’s on his own as far as representing himself in the Jesse Carr matter. It’s tough news for Beck to receive, but when the audience knows how little actual work is being done to bring him to justice, it’s hard to worry about him.