When their series “The Red Line” was picked up by CBS in February 2018, showrunners Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss were happy, albeit surprised.
Months before, every other broadcast and cable company turned down the show about three Chicago families dealing with the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black man. And the subject matter was considered “ambitious” for TV’s most-watched network, which boasts a predominantly older, white audience.
Les Moonves, then-CEO of CBS Corp. — who stepped down in September 2018 following allegations of sexual misconduct — told executives at the time he wanted to take “a big swing,” Parrish told HuffPost in a video chat with Weiss this week.
“Our only female queer executive at CBS pulled ‘The Red Line’ out of the slush pile and said, ‘Well, I really liked this script that we rejected over the summer,’” Parrish said. “And so we went from having no pilot to 24 hours later flying back to L.A. on a Friday and starting preproduction on a Monday.”
A similar situation happened with Veena Sud, who hit multiple dead ends while pitching her series, “Seven Seconds,” before it was eventually picked up by Netflix. The story explores a police cover-up following the hit-and-run of 15-year-old Black bicyclist Brenton Butler (Daykwon Gaines) in Jersey City, New Jersey, and his grief-stricken mother’s (Regina King) fight for justice.
“The fear was palpable and dispiriting,” Sud told HuffPost of the overall reaction of the networks. “Netflix was the one place willing to tell the story the only way we would: no holds barred, no feel-good ‘Kumbaya’ bullshit, no false happy endings.”
For the last several decades, that “feel-good” TV cop story has shaped our understanding of law enforcement. Dozens of police procedurals dominate TV networks, with millions of viewers tuning in to see hero narratives play out on screen. Fans devour series such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Hawaii Five-0” and others. Yet it is rare to find a cop show that holds a mirror up to the flawed institution.
In the last several years, as fatal police shootings of unarmed Black men have gone viral on social media, such shows as “The Red Line,” “Seven Seconds” and Fox’s “Shots Fired” have attempted to shift expectations by showcasing the effect of brutality cases on victims’ families, the police force and the judicial system.
In interviews with HuffPost, the showrunners of these three dramas — which each only lasted one season — shared stories of resistance, suboptimal time slots and less-than-stellar promotion by their networks. Their experiences also doubled down on an urgent need for an overhaul in TV’s highest ranks to ensure that diverse stories are being told on the small screen.
“The preponderance of representation of the criminal justice system and the police is one that glorifies and discounts civil rights violations, that gives cover and a stamp of approval to the way things are, that perpetuates the hero-cop narrative, that ― in an effort to not be un-PC ― now makes sure that the criminals are white and don’t deal with the actual percentages of the wrongly accused,” Weiss said. “Hollywood has a lot to answer for when it comes to our attitudes toward law enforcement and criminal justice. And I think we have a tremendous part to play in facilitating a cultural shift.”
A spokesperson for CBS said the network wanted “The Red Line,” executive produced by Ava DuVernay, to feel like an event, and so it chose to air back-to-back episodes in two-hour blocks to provide a mini-binge session for viewers. Parrish and Weiss, however, didn’t write the show to be experienced that way. To them, the eight-episode arc — about how a cop (Noel Fisher), a victim’s family (Noah Wyle and Aliyah Royale) and a Black woman running for city council (Emayatzy Corinealdi) handle the aftermath of a police shooting — was best served one piece at a time.
Weiss knows what a privilege it is to have the most-viewed network of the Big Five — ABC, NBC, Fox, The CW and CBS — as a platform to air a nuanced look at race relations and police violence. She just wishes more people would have had the opportunity to see it. (The show is no longer on CBS All Access and is currently behind a paywall on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.) But the odds for giant success were slim given the show’s time slot.
“We were considered a ratings failure, even though 5 million people watched every week on Sunday nights,” Parrish said, adding that the network is used to seeing viewership for shows such as “NCIS” or “FBI” hit above or close to 10 million. “Our premiere weekend was the same weekend ‘Avengers: Endgame’ came out, … and the end of us was the finale of ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Weiss added that CBS opted out of print advertising and billboards in the lead-up to “The Red Line” premiere, and it appeared the show’s social media accounts were uncared for as they only gained a couple of thousand followers.
“‘The Red Line’ was a compelling limited series that thoughtfully examined important and timely issues,” CBS said in a statement to HuffPost. “We were proud to be its broadcast home.”
For “Seven Seconds,” Sud worked with writer and collaborator David Shanks. It was very important for her to portray the truth about brutality in the force and the system that protects officers from being held accountable for horrendous actions toward Black communities. Shanks’ personal experience as a former cop on the South Side of Chicago lent itself to the story.
“Working on ‘Seven Seconds’ really gave me an opportunity to share some of the things that I’ve seen on the street and add to the series real insight into the culture of a police department in a major city in America,” Shanks, who also wrote an episode of “Shots Fired,” told HuffPost. “One of the first things I told Veena was that I felt I had to leave the department because I saw myself changing. As a Black man in America, I’m working in a place where everybody that I put handcuffs on looks like me. It affected me in a way that made me feel like I wasn’t really part of the solution: I was just pouring gas on the problem.”
Shanks said the “I got your back” mentality of cops prevents them from calling out foul play when it arises in on-duty situations. From his own account, partners rarely turn on each other. As shown in “Seven Seconds,” a group of cops protects one of their own, Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), after he accidentally hits and kills a Black teen with his car. These officers didn’t support the guilty cop’s desire to come forward with the truth and instead discouraged him to avoid blowback. But in the end, Jablonski is only sentenced to less than a year behind bars, and his co-conspirators get off.
“It’s sort of a self-perpetuating culture of, ‘We protect one another at all costs. The public be damned.’ And that’s not right,” Shanks added. “Now we’re sort of watching it all play out, and people are, like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s really happening.’ And Veena had the wherewithal and thought to put something together and present something like that to an audience. It was, and still is, necessary.”
The show garnered critical praise and earned Regina King an Emmy for lead actress in a limited series, although the show was originally intended to be an anthology rooted in Jersey City. At the time of its release, Fox 21 Television Studios President Bert Salke, who developed “Seven Seconds” with Sud, told The Hollywood Reporter that he saw the show going four or five seasons, exploring “the struggle to survive in urban America today.”
“What we tried to show truthfully in ‘Seven Seconds’ [is] how this country and its legal system consistently and systematically devalues Black lives, over and over and over,” Sud told HuffPost.
That narrative is currently playing out across the country. George Floyd was killed by former police Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25. It took dozens of protests across the country for Chauvin and former Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng to be charged in the killing, which is a rare event in extrajudicial police-involved deaths. Around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. But since 2005, only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting, according to a report in FiveThirtyEight. Out of that group, only 42 officers were convicted, 50 were not and 18 cases are still pending.
As a Black man in America, I’m working in a place where everybody that I put handcuffs on looks like me. It affected me in a way that made me feel like I wasn’t really part of the solution: I was just pouring gas on the problem.
Writer David Shanks on his time as a cop in Chicago
It was a real-life police shooting that opened doors for filmmakers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Bythewood. They were able to produce their 2017 limited series “Shots Fired” after Fox came to them with a proposal following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The wife-and-husband team had wanted to produce a project addressing police violence for years and felt grateful to have the ability to broaden their audience on a network platform.
“Shots Fired” begins when Black cop Joshua Beck (Tristan Mack Wilds) shoots white teen Jesse Carr (Jacob Leinbach) after he presumably profiles him as a drug dealer. As forces align to help Jesse’s mother seek justice, the dismissed death of Black teen Joey Campbell (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is brought to the forefront, leading to an investigation into the North Carolina town’s corrupt police department.
“There was such a low awareness in other communities outside our own,” Prince-Bythewood told HuffPost. “We wanted to allow others to see what we go through as a community when these murders occur, and in addition, we wanted to follow the story of a young Black boy also murdered to illustrate how little police, government and communities care about those deaths.”
“Shots Fired,” now streaming on Hulu, starred an A-list cast that included Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James, Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss. It reached an average audience of 3.5 million weekly when it aired Wednesday nights in the spring of 2017. A lot of the feedback from the audience was positive, but Reggie Bythewood said that many potential viewers saw the trailer and made rash judgments or skipped it, thinking the show was associated with Fox News.
“We started to hear stories from various people that had interesting encounters [with police], and then there was another contingent of right-wing folks that just wanted to fight every single time,” Bythewood told HuffPost. “Because there are people that do not want to listen. I’m not sure now, but certainly back then they didn’t want to really take in the information we were giving, even though much of it was based on real-life research.”
Bythewood said he’s experienced countless instances of racism in “liberal Hollywood,” particularly with high-powered executives and directors. He knows the industry would benefit from dissecting the ranks of who’s inside. But studios can’t just put a Band-Aid on a faulty system, he said. Taking shortcuts won’t help white creators and gatekeepers understand — or fix — inherent bias.
Months from now, when film and TV production opens back up and new content hits networks and streaming platforms, these creators hope to see a genuine push for diversity above the line. Despite initiatives and women-led production companies, the entertainment industry still has a ways to go in terms of representation. That includes, of course, hiring and casting crew members and leads of color and executives approving varied scripts.
More shows dealing with the honest reality of law enforcement, the criminal justice system and racism in America won’t be told if there isn’t a changing of the guard. In order to accurately tell these stories, people with personal life experience and historical knowledge of the circumstances must be given opportunities.
Weiss insisted that the stories coming out of writers’ rooms have “immense power,” and creators need to be held accountable for their choices.
“You have to enjoy being surrounded by people who know more than you about their lived experiences. You have to allow those perspectives to fill up your vision and not get defensive because ‘this is your show.’ And interrogate the ways, in particular, white feminism can intrude upon intersectional storytelling without you even being aware of it,” Weiss said. “Our goal [with ‘The Red Line’] was to be as radically inclusive as possible in not just our casting and hiring but in the characters we were exploring.”
Sud echoed that change in Hollywood has to start at the top.
“Our stories on television are not going to change as predominantly white men are saying what goes and what doesn’t go. Period. Full stop. It’s pretty simple,” Sud said. “Across the board, our industry — whether it’s entertainment press or the executive offices or who’s behind the camera or who’s in front of the camera — really needs to actually represent the country we live in.”
Sud added: “The people who are actually making the stories in our industry and covering them and greenlighting them don’t look like America. So big surprise that these stories [about police violence and the criminal justice system] aren’t being made.”
To Shanks, it’s a shame that despite receiving positive feedback and sparking conversation on social media, shows such as “Seven Seconds,” “Shots Fired” and “The Red Line” weren’t given second seasons. And he believes unrepresentative shot-callers are the reasons why.
“If people of color and people who have varying viewpoints aren’t in those positions, we’re going to continue to see exactly what we’ve been seeing. And the public is none the wiser because this is what they’re being fed,” he said. “It’s a stretch, but it’s not beyond comprehension that if ‘Seven Seconds’ or shows like it were on television, maybe the conversation would have started to shift a little earlier.”
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