Current events disrupt Showtime series on mass shootings

A woman sites on a curb at the scene of a shooting outside of a music festival along the Las Vegas Strip. (AP Photo/John Locher)

NEW YORK (AP) — It came as little surprise to producers, but Showtime’s about-to-conclude documentary series on mass shooting incidents was itself disrupted by mass shootings.

Showtime cut back on reruns of the series following the Oct. 1 attack at a country music concert in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and injured hundreds. An episode for later in October on the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 had to be changed because the claim that it was the nation’s most deadly such event ever was out of date.

Las Vegas and the Texas church shooting proved the series was relevant. But when television news is filled with coverage of fresh horror, a pay cable series examining similar events is the polar opposite of escapist television.

“Probably these events were unhelpful from a viewership standpoint,” said Aaron Saidman, one of three executive producers of “Active Shooter: America Under Fire.” ”People who participated in the series reached out to us and said it was really hard to watch in light of what happened.”

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The series’ eighth and final episode, about the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, premieres Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Simply by the odds, producers figured there was likely to be a shooting at some point during the series’ run. Real life was even worse than they feared. Showtime gave no serious consideration to postponing the documentaries, said Vinnie Molhotra, the network’s senior vice president for unscripted series.

“I feel like it really solidified our reason for doing the series in the first place,” he said.

The idea came from a meeting producers had with the Santa Monica, California, police chief, who told them about a 911 dispatcher who had to be reassigned because of an emotional response to taking calls during a shooting. They decided to look at eight separate events with different perspectives, such as through the eyes of first responders or hospital workers overwhelmed by victims.

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Columbine, where 12 students and a teacher were killed, in many ways set the stage for incidents to follow. Filmmakers showed how it led to a change in how police handle such cases; in Columbine authorities were seen as too methodical and it led police in later shootings to be more aggressive upon arriving on a scene.

The episode notes that Columbine led to some 80 copycat incidents. Makers of the series talked to experts about how the documentaries themselves could avoid inspiring attackers, said executive producer Eli Holzman, partner with Saidman and Star Price. The series discusses the movement to persuade journalists to avoid repeating the names of people responsible for the crimes.

“We don’t glorify the violence,” Holzman said. “We don’t glorify the shooter. We try to really emphasize the people who are working to solve the problem and show the humanity of the people dealing with the consequences. This is not a group that anyone would want to join or be part of.”

The Columbine episode relies heavily on Dave Cullen, who wrote a book about it that proves wrong much of what was believed to have motivated the killers. He portrays attackers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as bumblers whose plans for greater destruction didn’t pan out.

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The Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut was the most notable event producers avoided this fall. Since parents of children killed there have been involved in other recent projects, there was no stomach for making them relive that time again.

Filmmakers didn’t preach about how society should deal with the problem. But they gave survivors and rescuers they interviewed the chance to offer opinions.

Holzman said his own feelings had changed through working on the series. He’s a gun owner.

“I would be willing to own less of them and go through a lot more in order to acquire them,” he said. “I would be willing to make the compromise so that my fellow citizens would be less likely to be harmed.”

Saidman said he’s disgusted that mass shootings keep repeating with little serious discussion of how to stop them.

“We’ve tacitly accepted this level or carnage as a normal part of American life,” he said. “I have grown to find that completely abhorrent and morally objectionable.”