Richard Dreyfuss would like you to know that Fox’s upcoming event series, “Shots Fired,” is “probably the most current show you’ll ever see.” According to the “Jaws” star, “When we were shooting it was happening and when we left it happened there… it’s exactly current with the world.”
And that’s by design. At the TCA Winter Press Tour, the producers and stars of Fox’s 10-episode drama explained that the show came about right after the chaos that rocked Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014.
According to co-creator Gina Prince-Bythewood, after the events following the death of Michael Brown, Fox CEO Dana Walden went to producer Brian Grazer regarding a project that would take on the issues Ferguson brought up. Grazer then enlisted Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Bythewood to develop it — whatever “it” might become.
Bythewood credited Grazer with coining the best description for the show: “to do an autopsy of a town like Ferguson.”
“They gave us such freedom to create the show that we wanted to make and the show that we would like to see,” Prince-Bythewood said.
Beyond the social issues, the producers framed “Shots Fired” as “a whodunit and a whydunit,” in Bythewood’s words. “Who killed Joey Campbell, and why was Jesse Carr killed? So the mystery element is highly important, and we knew that we wanted to create a great narrative that would just ideally keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
“That being said,” he added, “we had a creed for the show, which is to get the audience to the edge of their seats and, while they’re leaning forward, hit them with the truth.”
“Shots Fired” reunites Bythewood and Prince-Bythewood with “Love and Basketball” star Sanaa Lathan, who stars as Ashe, the flawed but savvy investigator who works to help prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephen James) get to the truth of an incident in which a black cop shot a white teenager.
Dreyfuss (essentially serving as the panel’s designated hype man) commented that the character was “extremely well drawn and extremely well played. It will scare the hell out of you because it’s so great.”
The series also stars Helen Hunt as North Carolina governor Patricia Eamons, a political figure trying to control the civil unrest brewing in her state. “I want to work on things that are alive in me, and the country was on fire and is on fire,” Hunt said of her motivations for taking on the project.
She also, coincidentally, had been interested in pursuing the rights to a book called “The New Jim Crow,” but had been told two other people were interested in it. As it turned out, those other people were Bythewood and Prince-Bythewood.
“It seemed all kind of meant to be,” she said.
The directing lineup includes some staggeringly big names, including Jonathan Demme, Kasi Lemmons, Malcolm D. Lee and Anthony Hemingway. Prince-Bythewood directed the pilot and noted that they deliberately brought in an equal number of male and female directors, a majority of whom were people of color. They also sought out feature film directors because Prince-Bythewood said that “we think of it as a 10-hour film.”
“We wanted people that would come in and not just think of it as, ‘I’m coming in for a week to do a TV episode and leaving,'” she added. “Everybody came in, wanted to do research, wanted to read the whole bible, wanted to read all the character work and really dig in and get great performances. That was really exciting.”
While the show tackles incredibly serious issues, the panel was eager to mention that the show was still entertaining. “You’re going to cry and you’re going to be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing this mirror of what is going on in our society,'” Lathan said. “And yet it still is a mystery. It’s hot. There’s sexy, hot moments. There’s like ‘ooh’ moments. I’m so excited because it has both: It has the depth, but it also has that thing of like, ‘Damn, I wish I could binge watch this.'”
It would be a binge watch, though, with great personal resonance for those involved. Mack Wildes, who plays the black police officer involved in the shooting, noted, “There were days that we would walk into the hair and makeup trailer, and the hair and makeup ladies would be crying because of the things that are going on in the news.”
And he had his own emotional trouble on set. “I remember Gina had to come and console me the day of the Philando Castile situation because that day I had to put on my uniform, and I couldn’t even stand to look at it,” he said. “It kind of turned the knob up on how intense everything felt.”
“Shots Fired” premieres March 22 at 8pm on Fox. Check out an extended preview of the show below.