A little under six weeks ago, a new eight-part docuseries debuted on Showtime. Titled Active Shooter: America Under Fire, the show—executive produced by Eli Holzman and Aaron Saidman—explores the subject of mass shootings in the U.S., with each episode dedicated to a different tragedy. The goal, Saidman told me, wasn’t to advocate for any particular policy changes, but rather to “spark a healthier, more productive national conversation” about something he describes as “an epidemic.” Rather than focus on the perpetrators, Active Shooter gives space to the survivors, the family members, and the first responders who’ve endured mass shootings to speak about what it’s like.
Two days after the first episode aired, a gunman in a hotel room in Las Vegas killed 58 people and injured more than 500, in the worst disaster of its kind in American history. Two days after the sixth episode aired, a gunman in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed 26 people, including a 5-year-old, and wounded 20. “As producers of nonfiction content,” Saidman said, “we try to make programs that get people thinking about topics that are in the news.” It’s hard, in other words, for documentaries to be too timely. But in this case, he wondered if Active Shooter actually was. Holzman, his partner, described the confluence of news and subject as “a terrible confirmation of our thesis that there’s an urgent need to make some changes. Because it’s getting worse.”
Active Shooter is unusual in that it’s a series on a major premium-cable channel that’s directly engaging with the subject of mass shootings. For the most part, film and television writers steer clear of the subject, and when they do engage with it, they often collide with the ever-more frequent instances of gun violence in the news and are pulled from the air. In June, the day the NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show was scheduled to air an episode in which Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) struggled to process his feelings about surviving a shooting at the mall, the House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others were shot on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. (In a separate event on the same day, a UPS worker fatally shot three of his colleagues in San Francisco.) NBC pulled the episode, eventually airing it two weeks later, right before announcing that The Carmichael Show had been canceled. Last month, after the Las Vegas tragedy, an episode of American Horror Story: Cult that featured a mass shooting was heavily edited before it was broadcast.
There are plenty of reasons why the entertainment industry avoids the topic of mass shootings, the most salient being concerns about a copycat effect. After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, a handful of indie film directors considered the subject, in movies like Zero Day, Elephant, and Bang Bang You’re Dead. But the fact that so many lawsuits subsequently blamed pop culture itself for Columbine seems to have turned mass shootings into something most artists don’t dare touch.
There’s something awkward, though, if not outright hypocritical, in churning out cultural products that glamorize gun violence while refusing to engage with the reality of it. For one thing, stories are integral to how humans process real-life events, particularly tragedies. They encourage empathy for victims, and they attempt to convey some extent of the horror. One of Holzman’s main motivations in making Active Shooter, the producer told me, was to humanize statistics that can be hard to comprehend from news reports. The current protocol for stories that tackle mass shootings is to remove them from the public whenever real-life violence occurs—a tacit endorsement of the gun lobby’s argument that the aftermath of a tragedy is the worst time to politicize it. But what if stories can help?
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A recent fourth-season episode of the animated Netflix comedy Bojack Horseman titled “Thoughts and Prayers” skewers the automated Hollywood response to mass shootings in America. The producer Lenny Turtletaub (J.K. Simmons) is readying the release of Ms. Taken, a Liam Neeson–inspired revenge thriller, when news breaks of “another mass shooting.” Turtletaub shrieks with despair when he learns that the shooting happened in a mall, where many of Ms. Taken’s scenes are set. “I am sick and tired of real-life gun violence getting in the way of us telling stories that glamorize gun violence,” he rages.
As satire, “Thoughts and Prayers” veers uncomfortably close to the truth. In the wake of mass shootings in the U.S., producers often respond by suspending or delaying projects that depict or glorify gun violence. After the Las Vegas massacre, Netflix canceled a promotional event at Comic Con in New York for The Punisher, its upcoming Marvel adaptation about a gun-toting vigilante played by Jon Bernthal. In a statement, Marvel and Netflix declared that they were “stunned and saddened” by the recent events in Las Vegas, and after careful consideration they decided “it wouldn’t be appropriate for Marvel’s The Punisher to participate.” The counterargument to this statement, though, is that if it’s inappropriate to promote The Punisher after a mass shooting in America, it’s never going to be appropriate to promote The Punisher. At this point in history, there are too many “recent events” to count.
This isn’t to rail against TV shows and movies that feature gun violence, which is a different argument for a different day. It’s to underline that Hollywood unfailingly responds to mass shootings by looking away. Episodes are delayed; releases are put on hold; promotional events are canceled. Then, after a minimally disruptive period of time has passed, everything returns to normal. But while gun violence quickly becomes acceptable again to depict on film or television, the topic of mass shootings is studiously avoided. The reason that’s most frequently proffered is sensitivity to victims, but coming from an industry that’s hardly squeamish about portraying, for example, sexual violence, it’s hard to fully accept.
The fear of inspiring copycat shootings has also deterred artists since Columbine, which saw a spate of complaints against filmmakers, video-game companies, and musicians for supposedly inspiring its perpetrators. But, as with any difficult subject, there are ways to approach it without glorifying violent crimes or contributing to the mystique around perpetrators. Active Shooter, like the recent documentary Newtown, spends as little time talking about perpetrators as possible. It notes only basic biographical information that adds context to the ongoing question of why these outbreaks of horrific violence keep happening.
A different reason might be that when storytellers do consider the subject, they’re widely criticized. The 2016 Netflix drama The OA was denounced for featuring a school shooter in its climactic final episode, even though the series had spent much of its time up till that point considering the loneliness, disaffection, and isolation that trigger acts of violence. And a school shooting–themed episode of the Fox series Glee, which aired in 2013, was accused of manipulating a charged subject in a ploy for ratings. When Glee’s creator, Ryan Murphy, had previously considered school shootings in the first season of American Horror Story, he was also critiqued—not for a lack of sensitivity, but because the episode’s nuance and somber tone didn’t gel with the series’s sense of fun.
So it’s understandable why writers and directors often choose to stay away from mass shootings. But the lack of stories and dramatizations regarding the subject means it’s mostly portrayed one-dimensionally, in news reports and broadcasts that report events rather than immerse people in them. It also means that most narratives about guns continue to be heroic rather than truthful. “There are shootouts in so many Hollywood films,” Holzman told me. “But in reality, when you hear from people who’ve actually experienced this, it’s more like a frantic moment of confusion, and then abject terror. Cops who’ve never had to draw their gun before in their lives are suddenly obliged to maybe take a human life. I think it’s important to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.”
Part of broadening the debate about guns in the U.S. means offering a more thorough and dispassionate sense of the harm they can cause. Active Shooter painstakingly interviews people whose lives have been upended by mass shootings, including survivors. As a work of nonfiction, it adds texture and depth to the existing cultural conception of these events. (Fictional works have the license and the imagination to go even further.) But what the documentary series does best is communicate the extraordinary damage events like the ones in Aurora or Oak Creek or Charleston or Sutherland Springs do to small communities, and how the consequences ripple outward. America is a community too—one that’s indisputably riven by gun violence. We deserve to see what it really looks like.