FOX's drama Shots Fired, premiering on Wednesday, March 22, is the next serious attempt to mix real-world issues with serialized televised storytelling. And though Shots Fired isn't based on a true story and features original characters in a fictional town, because it is centered around a police shooting, it is naturally inspired by the nation's current unrest. There have been many high-profile cases that echo those at the center of Shots Fired, like the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the people behind the series are not taking those similarities lightly.
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, creator Gina Prince-Bythewood said that she and fellow creator Reggie Rock Bythewood thought of Shots Fired as "an autopsy of a town like Ferguson," which exploded into protest in the days and weeks following Brown's death.
The series takes place in a fictionalized suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the wake of an incident where a young black officer kills a young unarmed white man. Though most high-profile cases of real police shootings — such as Brown's and many others — have centered on a white officer shooting an unarmed black man, Bythewood said at a Television Critics' Association event that they wanted to flip things "to get people who don’t normally go through this issue to understand … to give them a way in and a way to understand." Prince-Bythewood added, "It’s very easy for people to watch the news and see a piece about a shooting, and if you don’t identify with who’s on screen, you turn it off."
Shots Fired will also examine cases involving white officers and black victims, as Prince-Bythewood explained, "it was also a way in because once they get down there, they discover there's been a shooting of a young black teenager." From there, the show will explore the disparity between how the deaths of a young black man and a young white man are treated in their community.
Other issues that inspired the series, according to Rock Bythewood's comments to the Observer, were the death of Trayvon Martin, and how it connects to the lynching of Emmett Till, almost 60 years earlier. And within the show itself, the names of shooting victims LaQuan McDonald, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott are reportedly namechecked. The death of Philando Castile didn't make it into the script because it happened as the show was filming, but star Tristan "Mack" Wilds told ESPN's The Undefeated that it deeply affected him.
"I broke into tears. Like, inconsolable-nobody-could-tell-me-anything tears. I didn’t want to work that day," he said. The actor, who plays the police officer that shoots a young white man, also said that though the moment was painful, it ultimately added to the verisimilitude of Shots Fired. "Everything we’re doing in the show came off very real because it came from a real place," Wilds said.
Rock Bythewood also told The Undefeated about his son's reaction to the spate of recent killings. "Our boy was rocked emotionally, and it really challenged his worldview," he said. "I think he might have thought that he was living in a postracial America. He grew up when there was an African-American president, and so he had a different worldview."
Even without being explicitly about real victims in a real city, Shots Fired is raising awareness about how and why these things actually happen, and using its fictional story to work through such issues. That's what prompted costar Richard Dreyfuss to, at a TCA event, call Shots Fired "the most current show you’ll ever see."