The first episode of Shots Fired opens with a now painfully familiar scenario: A small-town cop has shot an unarmed teenager. One major difference? The cop is black, and the dead teen is white.
But before the small North Carolina town has a chance to grapple with the incident, the neglected murder of an African-American teen is brought to light, opening wounds that threaten to tear the community apart.
So begins Fox’s 10-episode drama, created and written by husband-and-wife producing duo Reggie Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood, which aims to explore the racial divides in America’s justice system from every angle.
“We knew we wanted to do it in a small Southern town. During our research, we looked at Ferguson, and we didnt want to set in Ferguson, but, in many ways… we wanted to do an autopsy of a town like Ferguson,” Reggie Bythewood explained at a Q&A for the show during the Television Critics Association press tour in January.
The decision to open with a black cop killing a white kid is designed to challenge audience preconceptions, according to Gina Prince-Bythewood.
“For us, its about speaking to the truth… Its very easy for people to watch the news and see a piece about a shooting, and if you dont identify with whos on the screen, you turn it off,” she said. “So we felt the best way to address this issue for us and to get people who dont normally go through this issue to understand was to give them a way in and give them a way to understand. In flipping the narrative, it allows folk who dont normally identify with characters to empathize with them, and through empathy you can change.”
While Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and his investigator, Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) are initially sent down south to lead the Department of Justice’s inquiry into Deputy Beck (Mack Wilds), they soon discover that the murder of a young, black teenager has gone unsolved.
“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 two young boys are treated,” Prince-Bythewood added.
“Whats interesting about President Obamas farewell address he quoted Atticus Finch, and he said, ‘You never fully understand what a persons going through until you can see it through their point of view,'” Reggie Bythewood added. “We wanted to take the audience to look at it from various points of view. One of our other creeds was to give a view from every seat in the house.”
The actors admitted that the show felt especially timely while they were filming. The series is produced in North Carolina, where Keith Scott was shot by police on Sept. 20, sparking days of public protests although filming had concluded by then.
“We didnt have to look into a crystal ball and know that something was going to happen in that town. Its happening all over. So we shot probably the most current show youll ever see,” noted Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Arlen Cox a real estate mogul and owner of a privatized prison. “As we were shooting, it was happening, and then when we left, it happened there, and thats why, as you watch this show, youre going to be reminded very clearly of the most current headlines in your life … This is America.”
“Right in the middle of our shoot was Brexit, the primaries, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. It was all happening while we were doing this… we already felt like it was resonant, what we were doing,” said Stephen Moyer, who plays Lt. Breeland. “And we would come in every day and talk about what was going on in the world before walking on set. So it was a fascinating time to be examining this subject.”
“There were days that we would walk into the hair and makeup trailer and the hair and makeup ladies would be crying because of the things that are going on in the news,” Wilds said. “I remember Gina had to come and console me the day of the Philando Castile situation, because that day I had to put on my uniform and I couldnt even stand to look at it. It was an interesting time. It kind of turned the knob up on how intense everything felt.”
The show is designed to tackle social issues, but the Bythewoods said they also want audiences to be engaged and entertained by the narrative, which is driven by the mysteries surrounding the two shootings.
“Shots Fired is a whodunit and a whydunit. Who killed Joey Campbell, and why was Jesse Carr killed? So the mystery element is highly important, and we knew that we wanted to create a great narrative that would ideally keep the audience at the edge of their seats,” Bythewood explained. “That being said, we had a creed for the show when we put it together, which is to get the audience to the edge of their seats and, while theyre leaning forward, hit them with the truth. So we clearly wanted to do a show that had great characters, really dealt with the social issue that we delve into, but the mystery element was the glue that keeps us coming back.”
And while the creators said that there is a possibility for some of the characters to return for another season should the series prove successful, Prince-Bythewood admitted that part of the appeal in writing the show was crafting a contained narrative: “What was exciting for us is that it was a 10-hour special event series,” she said. “So we knew going in we could have a beginning, middle, and end.”
Shots Fired airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.