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Fox’s Shots Fired aims to be American Crime or The Wire. It doesn’t get there.

The new limited series is a handsomely directed, nicely acted, overly complex mess.

Shots Fired
Stephan James and Sanaa Lathan star in Shots Fired.
Fox

Shots Fired, Fox’s new limited series about a community rocked by a police shooting, is a weird case.

If you’ve seen literally any of the other shows that are similar to it, it will feel like a pale imitation. If you haven’t, you might appreciate its attempts to dissect racial tensions in the US.

That caveat perhaps makes a review of the show unhelpful. It’s all but inevitable that Shots Fired will be compared to ABC’s superior, incredibly similar American Crime — but that show doesn’t have a very big audience, and this show will air on the same night and network as the return of big hit Empire, which suggests its audience will be larger.

So I could tell you to catch up with American Crime instead, but it’s not as if Shots Fired doesn’t have anything to offer. For those who want a social issues drama that contends with the intersections of race, class, and gender in modern America, there are better options, but that doesn’t make Shots Fired a lost cause.

Here’s the good, bad, and weird of this muddled but ultimately intriguing series.

Good: Shots Fired’s leads are worth building a show around

Shots Fired
Stephan James and Sanaa Lathan are easily the best things about Shots Fired.
Fox

Much of the attention around Shots Fired has focused on its varied cast of supporting characters, who include such well-known actors as Jill Hennessy, Helen Hunt, and Richard Dreyfuss, two of whom are Oscar winners.

But these actors play characters who are ultimately very small players in the overall tapestry of the series. (Indeed, Hunt plays the governor of North Carolina, and after watching six episodes, I’m still not sure why she’s part of the show.)

The bulk of the series’ action revolves around attorney Preston Terry (Stephan James) and investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), who are brought into a small city to investigate whether a police shooting was justified. The cop was black and the victim was white — and when the case becomes the subject of a major investigation, especially when a recent shooting of a black victim by a white cop seems to have been covered up, it’s something Shots Fired and its characters wrestle with mightily.

James is very good as the rigidly moral Preston, who insists that his only objective is to investigate the case at hand — even as his devotion to the law above all else becomes more and more of a hindrance for him. But it’s Lathan who lights the series on fire. Is Ashe a bit of a cliché, with her take-no-shit attitude and problems at home (manifesting in a custody battle with her ex)? Sure. But Lathan rips into those clichés with vigor and makes Ashe the most compelling part of Shots Fired every minute she’s on screen.

If the series somehow continues to exist beyond this first season, I hope it becomes a series where Preston and Ashe regularly travel to different corners of the country to investigate new miscarriages of justice, thus allowing Ashe to become the American answer to Britain’s Jane Tennison (the immortal hero of Prime Suspect) she clearly deserves to be.

Bad: The show waters down interesting ideas at every turn

One reason that American Crime — which is also doing a staggeringly ambitious season of TV about miscarriages of justice in North Carolina this year — is so good is that it refuses to kowtow to the typical style of network TV. Its scoring is minimal. Its acting is subdued. Its filmmaking is often bold and audacious, but without ever calling attention to itself.

Shots Fired is … not that. It feels, in every way, like a broadcast network TV show about the investigation of a police shooting.

And that’s fine, as these things go, but by the time I reached Shots Fired’s 500th scene with too-loud music meant to tell me how to feel about what was happening, I wanted to be watching anything else.

Characters constantly tell each other exactly what they think and exactly what they’re doing, as if somebody somewhere in the production chain is afraid of ambiguity. Though the series has a refreshing view of a world where most people are just trying to do the right thing and can’t quite figure out what that is, it occasionally seems afraid the audience will get the wrong idea about overt racism, leading to characters lecturing each other every few moments.

Perhaps worst of all, the series is built around what gradually reveals itself to be a massive conspiracy involving the local police department, which Preston and Ashe doggedly begin to uncover. For a series that attempts to talk about serious divisions in America right now, hauling in a conspiracy storyline threatens to bog everything down in unnecessary plot twists.

Good: The show’s direction is generally excellent

Shots Fired
The direction of Shots Fired takes you right into the characters’ living spaces in an unfussy but intimate way.
Fox

Shots Fired hails from director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose 2014 romance Beyond the Lights was one of the best, most unheralded films of that year, and director/writer Reggie Rock Bythewood, responsible for some entertaining projects of his own. Prince-Bythewood directs the series’ pilot and gives it an immediate feel — you are really here, in this little town, entering the characters’ private sanctuaries to better understand who they are.

That feeling of immediacy carries over to the list of heavy hitters who direct the other episodes, including everybody from superstar TV director Anthony Hemingway to well-known film directors Kasi Lemmons and Jonathan Demme. Each brings their signature style to their particular episodes, while also adhering to the format Prince-Bythewood set up in the pilot.

This is not as well-directed a series as some of its obvious inspirations (not just American Crime, but also The Wire), but it’s got more of a thought in its head about camera placement and how best to tell its story visually than the vast majority of American network television.

Bad: The story is just too big

The Bythewood duo have the same problem American Crime creator John Ridley did in his first season of that show: They’re trying to tell a story about everything in America right now, while seeming unsure of how to expand their story organically.

The stuff surrounding the two police shootings (the one being investigated, and the one that was covered up) is generally pretty good. But by Shots Fired’s midpoint, the series is also trying to incorporate major personal crises for almost all of its characters, including the governor, for some reason; the horrors of for-profit prisons; the nature of political compromise; the role of the church in modern society; a proxy version of the 2016 presidential election; and a whole host of other issues.

It’s just too much, and the series frequently feels as if it completely lacks a center, no matter how much it keeps trying to bring its focus back to the shootings. Ridley learned from his season one mistakes; hopefully the Bythewoods will as well.

Weird: Why is Helen Hunt in this show?

Shots Fired
Hi, Helen. Why are you here?
Fox

Hunt is doing her best with this material, but the degree to which the governor of North Carolina is insinuating herself into both the uproar around the shooting and the investigation of it is a little strange. In one particularly bizarre turn, she gets deeply involved in local initiatives dealing with bussing students from poorer communities to richer ones.

Has all of this happened in reality? Sure. Could it happen in this reality? Definitely. But Shots Fired never finds a reason to have the governor be a major part of the show, beyond the fact that it could cast an Oscar winner in the role. Every time Hunt comes on screen, Shots Fired immediately starts trying to justify her presence — and that’s rarely a sign of a great character.

Shots Fired debuts Wednesday, March 22 at 8 pm Eastern on Fox.

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