Heavy drama: Fox strikes a chord with new series 'Shots Fired'

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Cassie Dresch / TV Media
Stephan James stars in "Shots Fired"

Stephan James stars in "Shots Fired"

Fox is launching a new 10-episode event series, and it's going to strike a chord. Plucked straight from the headlines, "Shots Fired" will sadly feel familiar to viewers as co-creators Reggie Rock Bythewood ("Notorious," 2009) and Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Beyond the Lights," 2014) tackle the ramifications of racially charged police brutality. The new drama premieres Wednesday, March 22, on Fox.

It's an uncomfortable topic for some people, but it's one that definitely needs discussing, and sometimes the best way to raise awareness and generate conversation is through the artistic lens of television. You only have to look at shows such as "The Flip Wilson Show" and "Roots," both having aired in the '70s, which helped break through the color barrier. Or you could look at the show "Ellen," starring Ellen DeGeneres. Character and actress almost concurrently came out as gay, starting the narrative shift of gay acceptance on TV.

For "Shots Fired," which originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it's very clear that it is still a TV show with some common police procedural tropes, but it's also trying to advance the story about the criminal justice system.

"We shot the most current show you'll ever see. It's exactly current with the world," one of the show's stars, Richard Dreyfuss ("Jaws," 1975), said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "That's why, as you watch this show, you're going to be reminded very clearly of the current headlines in life."

The series stars Stephan James ("Race," 2016) and Sanaa Lathan ("Blade," 1998) as special prosecutor Preston Terry and seasoned investigator Ashe Akino, respectively, and follows the pair as they probe the death of an unarmed white college student, shot by black police officer Joshua Beck (Tristan Mack Wilds, "90210") in a small North Carolina town. During this investigation, they find out there's been another shooting by a white police officer on a young black man, and, after speaking with the boy's mother, Shameeka (DeWanda Wise, "Underground"), they start pursuing that case as well.

While at first it may seem strange that "Shots Fired" leads off with a black-on-white violence angle, Prince-Bythewood, who said the series would be like "an autopsy of a town like Ferguson" (in reference to the 2015 shooting death of Michael Brown in the Missouri town), told the TCA winter press tour reporters that it was very much done intentionally.

"You see this in the news all the time. It's very easy for people to watch the news and see a piece about a shooting, and if you don't identify with who's on screen, you turn it off," she said. "So we felt the best way to address this issue for us was to get people who don't normally go through this issue to understand ... to give them a way in and a way to understand. So in flipping the narrative, it allows folks who don't normally identify with these characters to empathize with them. Through empathy, you can change."

DeWanda Wise as seen in "Shots Fired"

DeWanda Wise as seen in "Shots Fired"

Along with James, Lathan, Wise and Dreyfuss (who plays privatized prison owner Arlen Cox), the cast of "Shots Fired" is a good one. Oscar winner Helen Hunt ("Twister," 1996) stars as North Carolina governor Patricia Eamons, who's knee-deep in a tough re-election campaign made tougher by the shootings. Stephen Moyer ("True Blood"), Aisha Hinds ("Mr. Brooks," 2007), Will Patton ("Remember the Titans," 2000), Jill Hennessy ("Crossing Jordan"), Conor Leslie ("The Man in the High Castle") and Clare-Hope Ashitey ("Suspects") round out the main cast.

The nature of the story and the real-life tragedies from which it's drawn were a compelling factor for many of the actors and actresses to join the series, with Lathan saying at the TCA press tour that "given the subject matter, how timely it is right now -- it was no question [to join]," and calling the show "heavy."

Hunt, who returns to a starring role on TV for the first time since "Mad About You" ended in 1999, said she found the role to be exciting. "I want to work on things that are alive in me, and the country was fire and is on fire, and these two people were writing about that, and that was exciting to me," she said.

At the end of the day, it still is a television show, and judging by the early reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival and the trailers that have been released, Bythewood and Prince-Bythewood look to have a very solid spring entry in the television landscape. Even though it's billed as a limited event series, there's a distinct possibility that a second season could be ordered if the first 10 episodes prove successful enough. ("We do have ideas of how it could continue," Prince-Bythewood said.)

Catch the series premiere of "Shots Fired" when it airs Wednesday, March 22, on Fox.