Shooter had a rough start. The television show starring Ryan Phillippe as the former marine Bob Lee Swagger was slated to premiere a year ago. Just then, partygoers in Orlando and police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were killed in cold blood. While the perpetrators of those shootings were the sort of cowards whom Philippe’s character was trained to eliminate with cool precision, the USA Network decided to lie low and twice postpone Shooter.
The new thriller series finally did start airing in mid-November. Donald Trump had been elected president; a lucky break for Phillippe and the producers at USA. The political event that shocked any and all New York Times writers — but not the voters between the coasts — was a blessing for the makers of the fast-moving series. A political espionage thriller filled with conspiracies and shootouts, Shooter has been embraced in the parts of the country where support for Trump continues to be strong.
Millions of viewers can’t wait for season 2, which will begin airing July 18. While I have watched only the first two episodes, I’m convinced the new story is tenser, more compelling, better paced and better written than the first season. If anything, I would expect the numbers to go up. It’s not impossible that even a coastal TV critic here and there might wake up to the talents of actors such as Phillippe, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Omar Epps and Shantel VanSanten, backed by producers Mark Wahlberg and Antoine Fuqua.
For a TV industry that currently wonders — or should wonder — whether it tries hard enough to serve millions of viewers in landlocked and southern states, the show’s success could be a lesson. The critics generally disliked it, just like the media wrote off Trump. Then Trump won at the ballot box and Shooter won the ratings battle. That’s probably no coincidence.
In places like Yuma, Arizona, the show’s tagline “Veteran – Hero – Target” plays well. I spent election day and night with a former marine in Yuma: a gregarious veteran who supported Trump as warmly as he welcomed a reporter from California. He and his friends explained that they believe in the idea, once uncontroversial, that defending and protecting American freedom and values is essential to the future of the Republic. When Trump challenged the status quo with that message, they jumped on board.
And when Phillippe’s Swagger took matters in his own hands to clear his name, protect his family and basically save the country, they tuned in. Shooter draws lots of young viewers, many of whom watch the series live, right after the WWE Smackdown broadcasts. That’s a population bracket coveted by advertisers and, hence, TV executives.
As Deadline has reported, Shooter helped USA rank as the top ad-supported entertainment cable network on Tuesday nights. “Shooter, which is skewing young, also has been very consistent week to week,” wrote Deadline, “indicating that the show has quickly found a fan base.” Most likely it’s a base of smart, patriotic viewers who like a smart story and excellent long-gun shooting.
Last year Swagger was set up to look like he killed a visiting head of state: the Ukrainian president standing next to the U.S. president. It was a plot familiar to any reader of Stephen Hunter’s post-Vietnam thrillers, particularly Point of Impact. The first ten episodes also looked and felt like Shooter, the 2007 film with Mark Wahlberg.
The villains were Russians, while the perfectly named Swagger was an Afghanistan veteran. At the start of the new season, Shooter swerves in different directions: Europe and Afghanistan. In tone and mood it borrows from American Sniper, the terrific Clint Eastwood film with Bradley Cooper. It also feels a bit like the greatest hits from Homeland: when that series was brilliant and still received Emmy Awards, before it crumbled under the weight of its politically correct confusion.
Swagger, his wife, and fellow former marines now find themselves in Berlin for an official celebration of their valor. Soon enough the mayhem starts up again. As Swagger says, they are being hunted, first by suicide bombers and then by a sniper.
The first season had intelligent writing. In episode 7 Swagger stole a car — one of many — from a church parking lot. To show his conscience in the midst of chaos he hit the brakes on the way out, found some change in his pocket, dropped it into a donation box, and crossed himself to ask for forgiveness. That’s lovely writing. By using just a minute of airtime to hint at Swagger’s inner life, the scene created a sense of history and faith in the man we mostly watched killing the people trying to kill him.
Still, the writing has gotten crisper. Expertly the show explains how a tense battle scene in Afghanistan has had lasting consequences. The Berlin attack on the group is a result of decisions made in a poor, remote village of an almost forgotten war. Looping modern battleground action and ethical war dilemmas into the life of a veteran makes the show feel real and current. Swagger is a quiet, strong, and troubled man: someone we can imagine serving recent post-9/11 Commanders-in-Chief, including Trump.
Shooter also continues to benefit from wonderful supporting actors. In Season 1, William Fichtner (who excelled in the original Prison Break) showed up as the rugged mentor and temporary sidekick to Swagger. The new season welcomes a supreme villain. The intense actor Josh Stewart plays a truly frightening guy with a long gun. He appears to be as good as Swagger, which is a promising premise for the episodes to come, as these two will presumably hunt each other.
Government conspiracies, distrust of authority, life after war, taking matters into your own hands, respect for the flag, rebellious self-reliance. These are resonant themes in Trump’s America. Mostly, though, I think Shooter has found its fans by taking them seriously. Don’t talk down to us. Celebrate courage and honor. Highlight patriotism over identity politics. Find stories that ring true for many instead of focusing on the drama of tiny minorities.
When Hollywood producers follow those rules and add in some solid actors, Americans will watch. American Sniper, 24, and early Homeland once proved that. Now Shooter does, too.