'911' Boss on Connie Britton's Return, "Pivot Point" to Season 4

911_ Whats Next- Publicity still - H 2020
Jack Zeman/Fox

[This story contains spoilers for "What's Next?," the third-season finale of Fox's 911.]

The season three finale of 911 delivered several moments that felt either like transition points or the closing of a chapter.

On the former, Maddie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) and Chim (Kenneth Choi) discovers she's pregnant after she feels sick at the graduation party for Athena's (Angela Bassett) daughter. Athena herself is recovering from — and just starting to confront — being assaulted by a suspect in the previous episode. Hen (Aisha Hinds) is studying for her medical school entrance exams.

"Hopefully every season finale is a bit of a pivot point," showrunner Tim Minear told The Hollywood Reporter. "We'll be telling the same stories, but we'll be telling the next part of those stories. Athena has some recovery to do, she has some challenges she's going to have to meet. It could be a fork in her road, just like there could be a fork in everybody's road."

And in terms of closure, the return of Connie Britton as Abby — she's a passenger on a train that derails and serves as the major set piece for the finale — helps Buck (Oliver Stark) finally start to move past their relationship and the way she left him, albeit not without one more harrowingly risky rescue attempt at the train-crash site.

Minear spoke with THR about the surprisingly easy process of luring Britton back to 911 for the first time since the season one finale and how some of those transitions might unfold when the show returns — both 911 and spinoff 911: Lone Star wrapped filming before the industry largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and both are midseason entries on Fox's 2020-21 schedule. Minear also discussed how both production on both shows and the stories they tell might be affected by the current state of the world.

How did the idea of bringing Connie Britton and Abby back into the show come about?

It couldn't have been more simple. Somebody pitched, "What if the penultimate episode leading into the finale was, for instance, a train derailment?" That was literally the pitch. And what if Maddie got a phone call from the crash site and the person on the other end seemed to know a lot about what they were calling about? It turned out to be Abby, who was on her way back from Phoenix. So the idea that was pitched was the thing we did.

Literally the next day, maybe two days later, I was at the 100th episode party for American Horror Story [Minear is an EP on both Ryan Murphy Productions series] and lo and behold, there's Connie Britton. I'm thinking, why don't I just go over there and ask her do this? So I had Angela Bassett with me, which is always helpful, and I just went over and said, "Here's an idea." And she said, "I'd love to!" It was literally that simple.

Had you been wanting to close that chapter with her and Buck?

For me, it has been, absolutely. Connie is a very busy star — she had Dirty John and was doing other things. So the idea that we could maybe try to get her back was always a little bit in the back of my mind, and I would always say so publicly and hopefully. The stars aligned [for the finale].

I think if we had waited another season it would have been too long, but it did feel like now everything has been re-established. We were telling the story of an untethered Buck throughout the season, from the tsunami and the lawsuit onward, and it just felt like Buck needed to see himself reflected in the person he gave the most credit for him changing and going down a new path. Once he saw her again, he could say goodbye and ask her what happened, then he could really move on in a way he hadn't before. But more importantly, he could understand that another person is in fact not responsible for his growth, that he did this, and that to me was important.

What do you want to bring for Chim and Maddie with their pregnancy storyline?

For me, there probably are not two more likable characters than Chimney and Maddie, who have both been through the wringer in different ways. Chimney felt abandoned by his father, his mother died when he was a kid, whose not blood brother, but brother in every other way, died 10 years ago when he first joined the fire department, and he's always looking for family. Maddie, who of course was abused by her ex, had to kill him — these are two people who deserve happiness.

That is one of the great things about being a showrunner (laughs) — not unlike God, you can give people happiness and reward some happy endings. I think that's going to be very satisfying for our audience. It doesn't mean their life is going to be smooth sailing, or they're not going to be in jeopardy or any of that. It just means you want to see something nice happen to nice people.

Athena could be healed physically by the time the show returns, but what about emotionally and mentally?

I believe she will not be fine by then. She's got some grappling to do with this assault. What we don't want to do is give short shrift to the trauma. Sometimes we'll not revisit something for a while, but we generally will. I think when we come back she's still having to deal with what happened to her. We have thoughts about where she might be going, and it might be to a slightly different place.

You've spoken with THR about incorporating the state of the world into these shows, but in terms of writing, do you have to try and see the future a little, as far as where things will stand a few months from now?

It's interesting. Right now, I think it would be difficult on a first responder show to ignore what's happening in the world. What I refuse to let happen is to let either show become subsumed by real-world events. By the time we're resuming physical production, that will mean certain protocols will have been established. We'll have to figure out how to go out and interact in the world, and I think that needs to be reflected on the show to some degree. And because we tend to pick up in real time, my feeling is what the audience has been through, the characters have been through.

We happened to wrap production and go on hiatus right before this happened. So in a way 911 and Lone Star have been walking between the raindrops, because we were able to finish shooting, and I have spent the last couple of months at home, remotely editing with my editors and getting these [episodes] ready for their airdates. So when we come back, there will be a certain nod to what's going on, and I will assume that my first responders will be observing whatever new protocols are in place in order to interact in the real world. There may be some story to be had out of that, but on the other hand we do not want the show to become subsumed in it.

How has editing process gone from home?

It's gone OK. It's been slower, of course, but the technology now does exist where I can have four editors, all in their own homes, and an Avid output into my computer, and it's almost like being in the editing room. There's less bad snacks, and I don't have to wear pants, but other than that it's been OK. The mixing actually is a lot harder, but as far as what I do with my guys and gals, it's kind of been the same.

In terms of physical production, both shows do a lot of big set pieces with stunts and background actors. It may be tough to say now, but might you need to find contingencies or other ways to do those things?

I'm sure that will be the case. In some areas, I think the answer here is to have enough lead time on all these set pieces and having scripts far enough in advance that one can plan everything out like a battle — which is what you do in production, anyway. It gets more difficult when you get behind on scripts and material becomes late. If we can stay ahead on what we want to do, then we can on a case by case basis figure out how to produce each thing.

The shows fundamentally are still going to be [what they are]. These are first-responder shows where these first responders leave their home base and go and respond to emergencies. It's not going to change the fact that we're a location-heavy production on both shows. And one assumes if the first responders in real life are observing certain protocols in order to remain safe, that means onscreen, my first responders are observing those same protocols. And presumably that would also go toward keeping my cast and my crew safe.

Finally, I'm always curious about shows like 911, or a medical show, that have to keep coming up with novel cases …

Uh-huh (laughs).

How do you and the writers handle that — is it research-based, is it spitballing in the writers room, both?

It's both. We had learned that there really had been a 911 call from a space station [as shown in the 911: Lone Star season finale]. That really happened. I don't remember exactly what the reality of that was, if it was a crossed line or something, but a lot of this is research-based. If you look at the first couple seasons, there are many, many times that we essentially re-created viral videos we had seen. There was a floor collapsing at a wedding, or a baby being flushed down a toilet or a bouncy house being blown 100 feet into the air. That's the feel we try to go for on both shows.

We're always trolling the internet and trying to find stories we can plug into either show. On Lone Star, we did a fire at a bull semen factory with exploding bull semen. That happened in Australia — it was based on a real thing. Generally, the things where it seems like the writers must have made this up are the things that actually happened, more often than not. I assume that as long as there is a Florida Man, we will have cases.

This interview has been edited and condensed.