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Shots Fired - Hour One: Pilot - Review: "Good Narrative, Bad Characterization"

23 Mar 2017

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Through the 45 minute pilot, I really struggle to come up with an adjective to describe Shots Fired. Bold? Bland? Ambitious? Playing it safe? They seem contradictory, but somehow I seemed to go back and forth with them during the episode, which I liked for the most part, but here’s the problem: at times, Shots Fired is as great as American Crime and American Crime Story, but at its worst, it plays out as one of FOX’s bland procedurals. Maybe this was intended by design to try make it appealing to both critics and audiences, but for me it caused me to feel both engrossed by the story, but also alienated.

Here’s the problem: the show deals with real world issues and it does it asking relevant questions that make you feel like this show is relevant, that this show is actually rooted in reality. But then we have characters that don’t feel like real people, they feel more like constructs by plot demands and that pulled me out immediately of the sense of reality of the show.

The show’s biggest struggle comes on constructing its two leads. We have Ashe, a divorced woman with anger issues, impulsive, and apparently very sexually active: all of those traits are part of what can make a compelling character, however Ashe often feels like she is defined by these traits and she doesn’t seem to be have shades of complexity or something in between. The core of her character is her desire to be a mother to her daughter despite her clear mental instability. This would be terrain for great character exploration, but the show plays it so forced in the midst of the story and the actress Sanaa Lathan simply can’t convey something beyond disdain and anger, making it hard to connect with her character.

Shows like American Crime and American Crime Story thrive on taking complex characters and making them relatable because the actors play various shades adding colorful personalities to them and their backstories are subtly presented to make truly compelling characterization. That’s something Shots Fired completely misses, as Ashe can’t come close to those characters: to me, she looks like she is just an uninterested and angry woman, who doesn’t really care about the case she is working on, and as a viewer, that made it really hard for me to truly care for her scenes.

Something similar can be said about Preston Terry, played by Stephan James, who also struggles to add more complexity to his character, as he is the more cold and rational side to play alongside Sanaa’s Ashe, and that’s about it: he is the guy who thinks things through, but also acts on his guts without losing his cool. And that’s about it: there is way less backstory for him than there is for Ashe and as such, no real connection besides the fact that he seems to truly care for the case that he is investigating, which is more than what can be said about Ashe.

So, with these two troublesome leads, how come I liked the episode?
The answer is the case: I not only appreciate what the show is trying to do with the parallel situation of a black cop shooting a white male, but it also intrigues me to think of this happening in the real world. The scenario presented here, beyond the two leads, feel realistic and the people on this world, again beyond the two leads, feel authentic and real to various degrees. The questions the pilot asks are very interesting.

Was the cop in the wrong? The pilot heavily hints that, yes, he is. Is the police trying to cover for him and are they intimidating the town? Again, it seems highly likely. Are the people in this community in danger? It would appear so too. All of these questions seem to lead to obvious conclusions, but in a way that made me excited to prove if I’m right or if there’s more to it. I felt a true level of depth on the show with the several points of views that the show explores.

I think the first 20 minutes are the strongest of the pilot: it sets up an upsetting scenario that keeps you engaged and makes you wonder about what’s going on and the people in this show. The following 25 minutes, however, are hard to judge, since they lean more on the main characters which are very problematic, while also taking a look at how complex this investigation will be not just from finding evidence, but also from press, image preservation, and maybe even a bit of conspiracy from the police.

All in all, I can’t be too hard at a show that truly got me engaged for the whole hour. However, if this show wants to be as relevant as the other big crime shows on TV, it needs to work on its leads, because they are no Marcia Clarke and Christopher Darden, and maybe they shouldn’t be, however it is impossible not to draw the comparisons when Shots Fired clearly wants to hit close to American Crime Story’s yard. The setting plays out like the prestige dramas, but the characters seem to be a better fit for a bland procedurial that is worried more about the case of the week than in character progression.

The show needs to work on its characters in order to truly work. An interesting setting can only get you so far, and an engrossing narrative can do a lot of heavy lifting, but with no character to relate or to become intriguing, it’s hard to really get in. I think the show jumped the gun on letting them have sex so far, it seemed like they were more worried about making a sexy air rather than true characterization, and the show clearly lacks subtlety in order to play it right.

Oh, and the opening credits I didn’t like at all: while the logo was clever, the way it unfolded was pretty bad, like a student film kind of opening credits, which would have been pretty good for that standard, but certainly not enough for broadcast TV.

So what did you think about Shots Fired? Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Please let me know on the comments below!

Grade: B-