'911: Lone Star': TV Review

Occasional thrills, lots of deconstructed masculinity.
1/19/2020

Fox expands the '911' universe to Texas as Rob Lowe leads a team saving people from longhorns, BBQ smoke and other Lone Star State emergencies.

I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but Fox's new franchise expansion of the impressively successful 911 — a Texas-set incarnation fittingly called 911: Lone Star — uses a backdrop of first-responder thrills as cover for an exploration of masculine fragility and definition-defying heroism. I mean, don't worry! The show is still full of explosions, infernos and death-defying stunts, but most of it is delivered in the attempted service of a more complicated series of character studies, an admirable goal not always smoothly executed in the first two episodes sent to critics.

The thing that's most instantly evident in 911: Lone Star, from creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear, is that a premise that ought to be introduced with simplicity, in this instance, requires an abnormal amount of table-setting.

After a tragic blaze wipes out most of an Austin firehouse, we actually begin in New York City, where 9/11 first responder Owen (Rob Lowe) gets a dire cancer diagnosis. This occurs as Owen's firefighter son TK (Ronen Rubinstein) is struggling with demons of his own. The time is right for a change of pace when Owen is approached by an Austin bigwig about coming down to Texas to help with their fire department's "inclusivity" problem.

"If you're gonna put diversity first, shouldn't you hire someone who's, you know, diverse?" Owen asks, admirably. And correctly. He's reassured that what they really need is an outsider. Since Owen and TK need an escape, he takes the gig and promptly starts shaking things up and addressing that inclusivity problem. Overtly and methodically.

His immediate recruits include: Marjan (Natacha Karam), a Muslim daredevil from Miami; Paul (Brian Michael Smith), a trans fire investigator from Chicago; and Mateo (Julian Works), a detail-oriented Austinite previously deemed intellectually unqualified for the force. Owen also has to deal with Judd (Jim Parrack), a native Texan struggling with PTSD as the lone surviving member of the crew decimated in the opening scene. Owen, TK and each piece of the new squad has to be introduced individually and defined by their difference, as do the uniquely Texas details like Owen having to learn that EMS teams (led by Liv Tyler's Michelle) have authority on medical calls.

Even beyond that, the first couple 911: Lone Star episodes have to dedicate themselves to establishing Texas as a unique setting from the original series, so there's a lot of underlined "Texas" here. Line dancing! Cowboy hats! Barbacoa! Clips from upcoming episodes include a longhorn! The show is one queso-based scalding away from Texas Bingo. It's a real contrast to how the original barely needed to explain anything and could just jump right into, "It's Los Angeles! There are emergencies! Have fun!" Still, the outsize cases are diverting and swiftly elaborated, without yet reaching the near-apocalyptic level of adventures faced by the L.A. gang.

Those elements are decent enough and 911: Lone Star is still primarily a fun/thrilling escape. I was most amused by the way it uses Lowe, an actor who has become iconic both for his handsomeness and his awareness of his own handsomeness. That's taken to an extreme that's comical and hardly unintentional.

In the pilot, over a minute of screen time is dedicated to Owen explaining his elaborate skincare regimen to Paul. In the second episode, his complicated, medically assisted approach to his hair gets nearly as much discussion. You practically expect episodic segments to be followed by commercials for Rob Lowe-endorsed beauty products. Heck, this is a character who survived 9/11 and his most upsetting nightmares involve potentially losing his hair. Yet here he is pondering how he can look at himself in the mirror — and he looks at himself in the mirror a lot — and do what he does if his looks are in jeopardy. It's a subtext that's troweled on thick, but if you look at it as commentary and not just Lowe's ego run amok, it's interesting.

Every character in 911: Lone Star is asking themselves something similar, if not identical. If Owen is the '50s-style heroic ideal and he's doubting himself, how do others carve out their place when people don't think they fit because of their religion, gender identity, sexuality or personal demons? It's a conundrum wrapped up in Austin itself, this ultra-blue dot in ultra-red Texas.

That's conceptual approval, of course.

How does 911: Lone Star play tangibly? Like its franchise companion — it's not technically a "spinoff" no matter how many people say it is, since no character or situation is "spinning off" from the original — it's above average. Bradley Buecker, director of the pilot, always delivers high energy and grounds the outlandish predicaments solidly. Lowe, even though he's verging into The Grinder-level self-parody at times, is the sort of charismatic centerpiece you'd want for a show like this and this latest deconstruction of his persona has some different shadings. Smith and Parrack are the best of the supporting players, though if you enjoy Tyler's brand of whispered, edge-of-tears emotionality, there's a lot of that here. So far, the show hasn't figure out what to do with Karam's character, or several of the other secondary life-savers.

But really, 911: Lone Star features a baby tossed from a car accident into a tree, a mysterious outbreak of suicidal zombie-ism and a guy who nearly dies from eating a hot pepper. That's probably what fans of the franchise want to know.

Cast: Rob Lowe, Liv Tyler, Jim Parrack, Ronen Rubinstein, Sierra McClain, Natacha Karam, Brian Michael Smith, Rafael Silva, Julian Work
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Tim Minear
Two-night premiere: Sunday after the NFC Championship game; Monday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)