Styled an "event series," Fox's "Shots Fired" seems to want to get to something big about Who We Are As a People — to engage, like ABC's "American Crime" or FX's "American Crime Story," with big ideas about race and class and justice. (The credits feature an American flag whose stripes are made from yellow "police line" tape.)
In practice, it plays more like "True Detective," Junior Grade, with Stephan James and Sanaa Lathan as a Department of Justice lawyer and his investigator sorting out their prickly relationship as they try to get to the truth of a police shooting in a small town in North Carolina. Gate Station is one of those microcosmic fictional hamlets where everyone seems to know — or at least know of — one another but whose citizens range from the very poor to the very rich.
The twist here, in terms of timeliness, is that the shooter is black, the lone African American on the Gate Station police force (Mack Wilds as Officer Joshua Beck), and the victim a white college student stopped by Beck in a neighborhood where his presence suggested a drug buy. Gov. Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) calls in the DOJ to oversee the investigation in order to avoid "another Ferguson." And young Preston Terry (James) fits her bill.
"She wants a black prosecutor out front, optics," says Preston's boss. "In this climate only a black man could indict this black cop without inciting tensions — if he's guilty." ("We don't need any crazy rednecks lootin' the local Cracker Barrel," is how the governor puts it to Preston when they meet.)
Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball," "The Secret Life of Bees") and Reggie Rock Bythewood ("Players"), the story runs fast out of the gate, with the leads carrying the weight of extracurricular personal business. Ashe, who has anger issues, is in a custody battle with her ex-husband; Preston, who could have been a big-league baseball player, competes with his big-league basketball player brother (Shamier Anderson) for the attention of their father (Dennis Haysbert). Major and minor characters rapidly fall into bed, more to get some sex into the story than anything to do with the characters or the case at hand.
Meanwhile, the governor is in a reelection campaign, and in a kind of parallel stream, activist pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds) is making what looks like her own bid for power on the back of current events; their level of sincerity and selflessness is left intentionally difficult to gauge. Similarly twinned are Jill Hennessy as the mother of the boy Beck shot and DeWanda Wise as the mother of a black teenager whose murder the police have not investigated, a shooting that turns the story into an actual mystery.
Police shootings in the world tend to involve bad decisions under pressure, influenced by local conditions, police culture and the culture at large. While that is enough for a dramatist to go on, in a muscular melodrama like this there is usually something more at work, some skulduggery worth a late-series reveal. As soon as we meet real estate developer Arlen Cox (Richard Dreyfuss, sporting an accent as a thick as a 1970s shag rug), showing off his model of a new for-profit prison to a roomful of area bigwigs — at a fundraiser for the governor — we know we are in that familiar place where wheels turn behind wheels.
From the evidence of five out of the series' 10 episodes, it's clear that revelations will follow revelations. And though the dialogue sometimes gets a little Hollywood-doctrinaire (Will Patton's Sheriff Platt: "Young man, you need to learn how to talk to people." Preston: "Sounds like you're saying I need to know my place. … Like it or not, you will respect me"), Prince-Bythewood and Rock Bythewood do work to make their story, if not complex, at least unpredictable. "This notion of good guys and bad guys, it doesn't exist for me anymore" they have a character say — a white policeman (Stephen Moyer), who may turn out to be as bad a person as we seem meant to suspect, or a better one than we imagined.
It's a patchy affair, more or less convincing not only from scene to scene but even from line to line. Exchanges that play naturally alternate with those that strain to make points. The production too can play against the actors — it's a fine cast, stray accents notwithstanding — taking the viewer out of reality through overstatement (threatening soundtrack) or budget (sparse crowd scenes). But James and Lathan are appealing — you could build a decent episodic series around his by-the-book rookie and her hard-as-nails veteran quite easily — and while "Shots Fired" lumbers as an issue drama, it's diverting enough as a cop show.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd