Must-Suffer TV

Shots Fired, American Crime, and the challenge of making grim, issue-driven shows that are somehow still fun to watch.

Shots Fired and American Crime, season 2.
From left, Felicity Huffman in American Crime and Sanaa Lathan in Shots Fired.

Photo illustration by Slate. Stills by ABC and 20th Century Fox Television.

Shots Fired, a 10-episode crime drama that began Wednesday on Fox, and American Crime, an anthology series that began its third season a few weeks ago on ABC, are twins with barely any family resemblance. Both are ambitious, limited-run dramas tackling the biggest, thorniest, bleakest of contemporary issues. Shots Fired focuses on racism, police corruption and brutality, the slayings of unarmed citizens; this season of American Crime deals with exploitation, immigration, sexual slavery, and other permutations of human trafficking. Created before Donald Trump was elected president, they are nonetheless shows that communicate directly with Trump’s America, a divided and divisive country in near total disagreement about how the American experiment should proceed. But from this shared DNA come two shows so divergent that you can imagine them showing up at their parents’ house and arguing about whether TV is obligated to be fun.

Shots Fired is created by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights, and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood, and like Beyond the Lights, it’s a piece of pop-entertainment, yoking all it has to say onto that genre stalwart, the whodunit. It’s popcorn covered in nutritional yeast. As the show begins, Deputy Joshua Beck (Tristan Wilds), the lone black officer in the police force of majority black city Gates Station, North Carolina, shoots and kills an unarmed white college student named Jesse Hart. The relatively liberal Gov. Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) calls in the Justice Department to investigate, and young, driven, cocky black prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) heads to Gates Station, joined by the seasoned investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), an ex-police officer with a fiery temper and tempestuous personal life. Shortly after arriving, Terry and Akino learn of another murder, this one of a black teenager named Joey Campbell, that has been covered up. Terry and Akino begin to investigate both cases, unraveling a conspiracy that goes—where else?—all the way to the top.

This past weekend, the New York Times ran an interview with the Bythewoods asking why they chose to open the show with the shooting of an unarmed white teenager by a black cop, instead of the far more common reverse. Prince-Bythewood replied, “We felt inverting it was a good way to allow people to identify with the character and understand what we feel.” That is a racially resonant “people,” an honest, if disheartening admission of television’s assumed white audience and the low expectations for its sympathies, as well as proof of the Bythewoods’ desire to reach that audience. (American Crime, in its first season, also explored racial tensions with the shooting of a white man.) But the murder of a white teenager is a kind of feint, a way to draw “people” in, and then turn their attention to something else. Jesse’s murder is a whydunnit, while the whodunit, the case driving the show’s revelations and mystery, is who shot Joey Campbell.

Shots Fired has its elegant, spare moments—Terry, driving through the county, seeing countless black men sitting in cuffs by the side of the road—but its appeal is its too muchness: It’s brimming over with ideas, talking points, revelations, and melodrama. Also in the mix are Jesse’s and Joey’s mothers, buffeted by various political interests; Pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds), a canny activist trying to bring more attention to Joey’s murder; Richard Dreyfuss as a large political donor building an enormous federal prison; various members of the police force, including the possibly very racist Lt. Breeland (Stephen Moyer); a supporting storyline based closely on Nikole Hannah-Jones’ outstanding This American Life episode on school desegregation; as well as Terry’s romance with an attaché, his highly competitive relationship with his NFL star brother, Akino’s flirtation with said brother, and a slow-growing romantic tension between the two leads.

Like other recent, sophisticated crime dramas, from The Night Of to Broadchurch, Shots Fired asks if the truth is sufficient. Can the facts ever capture the complex racial context of a place like Gates Station, let alone provide justice? But playing out alongside this question is a schlocky and involved storyline about Akino’s pending child custody case. This is a series that is savvy about racial optics—Terry has been sent to Gates Station because his bosses believe only a black man can prosecute a black cop without inflaming racial tensions—but also keeps asking if Terry will wait for his “Michelle,” rather than settle for a “Hillary.” It boldly humanizes the family man cop under investigation, a black man caught up in a crooked system, and also gives him some steamy shower scenes with his wife. It looks straight at political hypocrisy—a Republican candidate for governor proposes a bill that would mandate police to call the parents of anyone they pulled over who was under 21, a compassionate idea that is only politically thinkable for a conservative because the victim is white—and could fuel a Reddit board trying to ID Campbell’s killer.

Shots Fired has melded commercial and artistic impulses to create a highly entertaining series about entrenched racism—or maybe it seems like more fun than it is because I watched it in such close proximity to the brutally uncompromising American Crime. ABC’s anthology series, created by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley and using an ensemble cast in different roles each season, is a starkly realistic show about American social ills that is about as enjoyable as reading the newspaper on a really bad day. It’s thoughtful, disturbing, insightful drama that will leave you as wrung out as a sopping dishrag hung out to dry.

In the first episode of the new season, American Crime introduced a large, loosely connected ensemble cast: Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), an illegal immigrant making his way across the border, hellbent on getting to North Carolina; Kimara Walters (Regina King), a social worker trying to aid underage sex workers; the Hesbys, three siblings who own a family farm employing illegal labor; Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman), one sibling’s well-meaning wife; Isaac Castillo (Richard Cabral), a crew chief charged with finding farm labor; Coy (Connor Jessup) a white pillhead; and Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), a young prostitute. It was not until the second episode that we learned that Luis had crossed the border and paid his way to North Carolina to find his missing son, Teo, which, in TV parlance, is a big, fat, honking hook, a dad on a mission. In typical fashion, American Crime withheld that information until the second episode and then underplayed it. Hooks are for catching fish (or maybe, to judge by American Crime’s ratings, audiences).

American Crime is powerful stuff: It examines people at their most vulnerable, characters who are nakedly themselves for good and ill. When Isaac picks up Coy by the side of road, walking to get an illegal pill script, he’s dirty and strung out, without a family, and drinking too many beers. When Isaac suggests Coy might come pick tomatoes, Coy laughs. He still thinks that’s the kind of life and labor that could never apply to him, the fug of his privilege more powerful than his almost-visible body odor. Shae, a 17-year-old regularly getting pimped out, nonchalantly tries to entice another runaway for her pimp using a burger and fries. Laurie Hesby (Cherry Jones) is trying to keep her farm afloat even though she’s competing with international produce grown much more cheaply. Her solution is to hire cheap labor of her own and turn a blind eye to her employees’ immigration status and living conditions.

A number of critics have compared this season with The Wire, another series that, year by year, constructed an indictment of America and its flailing institutions. But while American Crime surely is an impassioned and clear-eyed assessment of America’s socio-political dysfunction, the show it reminds me of is HBO’s far more metaphysical The Leftovers, another series questioning the mandate that TV be a good time. American Crime, unlike The Wire, which cut its fire-and-brimstone message with both humor and propulsive crime-solving, is unadulterated: no humor, no levity, no escape. From its home on ABC, it’s exploring the outer edges of what television can do, the moods it can adopt, the feelings it can evoke. I’d rather watch Shots Fired a million times over, but that’s as both shows would want it.