It’s been 20 years since spouses Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood regularly worked in network television, on shows like A Different World and New York Undercover that were part of a big wave in the ‘90s of TV shows built around black characters, often telling uniquely black stories. By the time the Bythewoods went off to make movies like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights the broadcast networks had largely retreated from that space, as networks like Fox, the WB, and UPN, which had built audiences in their early days by programming shows with minority leads, opted for “broader” (read: whiter) series, and as network TV overall ceded scripted political material almost entirely to cable.
But as the Bythewoods return to network TV with Shots Fired — a new event series starring Stephan James and Sanaa Lathan as Justice Department investigators looking into police shootings in a racially-divided North Carolina community — the landscape has changed significantly. Scandal, Empire, and This Is Us have been the last three network dramas to become ratings phenomena, and all have African-American leads and directly address racial issues. There’s room on network for a show like American Crime, whose current season is also set in North Carolina and deals with violence that crosses lines of race and class. Sitcoms like black-ish and The Carmichael Show frankly discuss race, and TV as a whole has become both more creatively adventurous and a bit more socially conscious thanks to the many creative descendants of shows like The Wire.
That leaves Shots Fired (it debuts Wednesday night at 8; I’ve seen the first six episodes) as a natural fit in the current environment, but also as less remarkable than it might have seemed even a few years ago. It’s timely in its frequent invocation of Ferguson and other incidents of violence between police and the black community — though the Bythewoods start with a role reversal, as the case that draws federal attention involves a young black cop (Wire alum Mack Wilds) shooting a white student — it features an impressive cast, including Helen Hunt as the North Carolina governor, Richard Dreyfuss as an influential businessman, Will Patton and Stephen Moyer as local cops, and Aisha Hinds as an activist pastor who sees this case as an opportunity to effect real change (and/or to advance her own career), and gets strong work from them. (Hinds and Lathan — whose veteran investigator is also a self-destructive drunk with a bad temper — are alone worth the price of admission.) As James and Lathan’s characters uncover a second sketchy police-involved shooting (this time white-on-black), Shots Fired functions equally as mystery and social commentary, but it feels a bit padded and repetitive as it goes, and occasionally had me longing for a procedural spin-off where Lathan’s character becomes a hard-boiled private eye. Still, it’s an admirable big swing for Fox, and one that connects frequently enough to justify its ambitions.
I sat down with the Bythewoods at the Television Critics Association press tour in January to discuss the series, their thoughts on how TV has changed in their absence, how the show plays differently as a result of the current presidential administration (which was, when we spoke, still days away from being the inauguration), and more.
It’s been a while since you guys worked regularly in TV. Back in the ’90s, would this kind of thing have been possible even as a mini-series?
Reggie Rock Bythewood: I don’t think so. Last time I was on Fox was for New York Undercover, and it really at that time, it was, “Oh wow, there’s an African-American lead and a Latino lead,” and nobody else had done that type of thing. But could we have done a narrative where we really kind of dug into an issue like this? To be honest with you, forget about then, I’m surprised we’re doing it now. I’m like, “Are we really doing this? On network TV?” Honestly, that feels surprising. If you would have asked me a year and a half ago, I would have been, “I don’t think that’s going to fly on network TV.”
So what do you think changed?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Dana Walden, the head of Fox, said she wanted to something in this area and gave us the freedom to create the show and the story that we wanted to tell. The call came right after the Michael Brown murder, and the eruption in Ferguson that clearly she was moved by. I know a lot of people are surprised it’s on Fox; we were surprised, but surprised in a positive way in that this is an amazing opportunity, they want to do a show about this, we want to do a show about this, so let’s take advantage and do it.
Reggie Rock Bythewood: It just felt like it really was time, in that there were so many things happening in the country. These discussions were being had, but it wasn’t being dealt with in TV, and not in a real sort of in-depth way. It’s something that Gina and I had actually been talking about a lot. And so when Fox had expressed interest in doing something in the arena, were were like, “Okay, well, we got it.” And it was great.