The question of whether television shows should depict school shootings and other acts of violence isn’t a new one. A 1999 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Earshot,” in which Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) hears that someone is planning to kill all the students at Sunnydale High, was postponed for months because it was originally scheduled to air one week after the Columbine High School massacre (the Season 3 finale, “Graduation Day Part 2,” was also pushed due to concerns about inspiring copycat violence).
Two years later, David E. Kelley’s Boston Public attempted to address post-Columbine anxieties with storylines involving a teacher bringing a gun into the classroom and Vice Principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald) discovering a hit list while searching a student’s (John Francis Daley) locker. Though Kelley defended the show’s “heightened” take on major headlines of the day, his efforts to dramatize them were widely condemned by critics and the Parents Television Council, which named Boston Public the worst primetime TV show of the 2000-2001 season.
More recently, in 2013, Glee was criticized for Season 4 episode “Shooting Star,” which aired four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Though no one is hurt in the episode, the students are put on lockdown after gunshots ring out, a traumatic experience for the characters and viewers alike. As Lauren Hoffman wrote in a recap for Vulture, “All this episode of Glee did was attempt to re-create the deeply horrifying experience of hiding from a gunman in a building where you’re supposed to feel safe.”
In the decade since “Shooting Star” — a period that saw a notable increase in gun violence in the United States — society has largely come to the agreement that mass shootings in films and TV shows must have a purpose beyond pure sensationalism. These storylines should help us make sense of this senseless violence, the prevailing notion goes, and give us space to process the collective trauma of seeing this happen every day in our schools, grocery stores, and places of worship, with no end in sight.
While disappointing, it’s no surprise, then, that viewers would look to Abbott Elementary, the preeminent school-set series on television, to provide a nuanced take on an all-too-real part of life. In May 2022, immediately after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, Abbott star and creator Quinta Brunson revealed she had been repeatedly asked by fans to incorporate the tragedy into the ABC sitcom. “People are that deeply removed from demanding more from the politicians they’ve elected and are instead demanding ‘entertainment,’” Brunson tweeted. “I want people to understand the flaw in asking for something like this. We’re not okay. This country is rotting our brains. I’m sad about it.”
The assumption that Abbott Elementary, a show that prioritizes joy — particularly that of its predominantly Black student population — and lightheartedness, could single-handedly “affect change” with a school shooting episode is incredibly unreasonable, and Brunson was correct to shut it down. While Abbott occasionally addresses social issues, as it does with its running commentary about America’s underfunded education system, it’s still a sitcom, a format that doesn’t naturally lend itself to a serious discussion about guns. Brunson’s assertion that such incidents are not, and can never be, “entertainment” also reflects a shift in how we think about gun violence on-screen, and what we expect from our art in an era marked by the constant threat of assault.
With all this in mind, it’s disheartening that Accused, Fox’s new crime anthology, begins with an episode that uses a school shooting as a vehicle to explore “the limits of unconditional love,” as the official description reads. Michael Chiklis stars as Scott Harmon, a neurosurgeon who discovers that his loner son Devin (Oakes Fegley) is planning to commit an act of violence in retaliation against his bullies. While we never see it, it’s stated that Scott takes his concerns to the police but is dismissed; out of options, Scott invites Devin on a camping trip in the remote wilderness, where he contemplates killing his son before he can harm anyone else.
In what initially seems like a moment of vulnerability, Devin asks for money to go on a trip to Iceland, claiming it will help him “stop feeling so mad all the time.” Minutes later, though, “Scott’s Story” reveals this is an act of manipulation: Devin put the money towards an assault rifle, which he uses to murder seven students before turning it on himself.
Accused doesn’t depict Devin’s rampage, but he is shown in a barricaded classroom, with his gun pointed at a group of terrified students huddled against the wall. When Scott calls, via a phone provided by police officers outside the school, Devin mocks his father’s naïveté and asks why he chose not to “go through” with killing him on the camping trip. “You should’ve done it when you had the chance, because I couldn’t have done it without you,” says Devin, as he puts the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
These extended flashbacks to the camping trip and the shooting are punctuated by present-day scenes of Scott awaiting a preliminary judgment on his alleged involvement in his son’s crimes. Ultimately, the judge decides that Scott’s “behavior may have been negligent, but it wasn’t criminal” and sends him home. In the final seconds of the episode, Scott’s wife (Jill Hennessy) tearfully admits that she wishes he had killed Devin that day; Scott doesn’t respond, but the regret that crosses his face suggests he agrees.
It’s not difficult to see why Fox and executive producer/showrunner Howard Gordon think this is a story worth telling. Just as Kelley argued 20 years ago, a storyline like this ensures that Accused is “part of the conversation” when it comes to gun violence, an oft-stated goal of broadcast network executives (most of whom remain in identity crisis mode as viewers continue to decamp for streaming). But Gordon doesn’t seem to realize that the conversation has changed since the days of Boston Public. “Scott’s Story” isn’t concerned with the trauma of the victims or the ease with which minors can purchase guns or even the reluctance of police officers to enforce “red flag” laws. Instead, Devin’s deadly rampage functions as the means by which Accused explores the complicated love that parents have for their children, a theme that, in and of itself, has little to do with the actual violence depicted on-screen. Surely there are other ways to thoughtfully address this topic without traumatizing your audience (perhaps Devin is involved in a theft, and Scott must decide whether to turn him in, among dozens of less-horrifying options).
The good news is that Accused is an anthology series — each episode centers on a different person who has been accused of a crime — so “Scott’s Story” has no bearing on the rest of the season. Still, as the first episode of Fox’s ambitious, star-studded new project, “Scott’s Story” sets the tone for what’s to come, and viewers who are turned off by its heavy-handed, unnecessarily disturbing storyline are unlikely to stick around for more. How sad, because what’s ahead is exciting and needed on network TV: Marlee Matlin directs an episode about a married couple who discovers their newborn is Deaf; Pose star Billy Porter brings a story about a drag queen’s whirlwind affair to the screen; and Tazbah Chavez (Reservation Dogs) co-writes and directs an episode inspired by a 1979 uranium spill on the Navajo Nation featuring three Navajo lead actors. But unfortunately, Accused’s ill-advised attempt to “pierce culture,” as Fox scripted programming boss Michael Thorn said during a recent panel, with a school shooting episode threatens to detract from the positive work producers are actually doing to bring these diverse voices and stories to the screen in an authentic, powerful way.
This may be the strongest argument for following Brunson’s lead and calling a moratorium on school shooting episodes. Time and time again, we’ve seen television shows try to depict gun violence in schools, but no matter how well-intentioned these efforts may be, they almost always fail. In the case of both Accused and Abbott Elementary, the burden to pick up the pieces falls on people from already-marginalized groups. It’s deeply unfair to demand that these creatives bear the brunt of responsibility for fixing societal ills, especially as white supremacy and far-right extremism continue to fuel a rise in gun violence.
For decades, the school shooting episode has been held up as an opportunity to reflect the concerns of real students across the country, but if we’re able to resist the urge to depict these tragedies as entertainment, it may bring about the kind of change viewers asked of Brunson last year. Removing the school shooting episode from the pop culture lexicon sends a message to legislators that audiences take gun violence seriously, and their continued negligence will no longer be tolerated. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but at least moving beyond these kinds of stories would be taking action in some way — and that’s more than we can say for Republicans in Congress.
After this special presentation, Accused will air Tuesdays at 9:00 PM ET on Fox. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.