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Review: Fox’s NC-set drama ‘Shots Fired’ aims to enlighten and entertain

Tristan Mack Wilds in the premiere episode of “Shots Fired” on Fox.
Tristan Mack Wilds in the premiere episode of “Shots Fired” on Fox. Fred Norris/FOX

For those who like their TV topical and with a dose of social commentary, it’s a good time to be tuning in.

Fox debuts “Shots Fired” on Wednesday, a new 10-episode series that plays off the many recent racially charged shootings in the news involving black men (its biggest influences being Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown). The show, set in a fictional small town in North Carolina, opens with a black police officer (Tristan Mack Wilds) shooting and killing an unarmed white college student from N.C. State University during a traffic stop. The attention that shooting gets – the Department of Justice even sends two investigators to Gates Station, N.C. – angers the African-American members of community, because a previous shooting by police of a black teenager in the town was basically ignored.

This comes just a couple of weeks after ABC premiered the third season of its Emmy-winning anthology series “American Crime,” which is also set in North Carolina but tackles the topics of immigration (including the treatment of immigrant labor), sex trafficking and drug addiction.

“Shots Fired” is a compelling show with lofty goals, but if we’re comparing the two (and having them both set in North Carolina and debuting just 11 days apart, it’s hard not to), “American Crime” comes out on top. It’s just a superb drama that seems almost out of place on a broadcast network.

But that’s not to say “Shots Fired” isn’t worth watching. There’s some mystery woven into the civics lesson, and it has some wonderfully human moments – particularly when showing the pain of two mothers (Jill Hennessy and DeWanda Wise) who have little in common except for the devastating loss of young sons in senseless shootings. Similarly, Aisha Hinds is excellent as pastor Janae James, who uses the anger in the African-American community – and the national media spotlight – to galvanize citizens and expose the hypocrisy in the town.

Where the show falters is when it spends too much time with the Department of Justice duo. Stephan James is Preston Terry, a DOJ lawyer, and Sanaa Lathan is Ashe Akino, a DOJ investigator. Especially frustrating is Lathan’s character. Each time the story veers into her personal life (she has PTSD, serious anger issues and is in the middle of a bitter custody battle with her ex), it feels like soapy. She also sleeps with Terry’s brother, who happens to be a star Carolina Panthers football player. Terry is making the most of his free time in the Carolinas, too, sleeping with an aide to the governor.

Speaking of the North Carolina governor, she’s played by Helen Hunt. Richard Dreyfuss plays the owner of a private prison system.

It’s also worth noting that the series is filmed in the Charlotte area, but the setting is much more intriguing (to me, at least) than where it was filmed. And while the Charlotte connection is interesting, it’s also worth noting that the series was written and filmed before Charlotte’s own police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, so it’s not specifically about that, though aspects of other shootings from across the country are recognizable.

Even with its flaws, “Shots Fired” is evocative television, equal parts mystery and medicine, and worth a slice of your time each week. (Just don’t forget about “Amercian Crime,” either.)

Watch

“Shots Fired” airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.

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