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When visiting a trendy new restaurant from a hotshot chef, there are two different approaches to ordering. One is to get the most ridiculous, personality-driven thing on the menu, on the grounds that the sous vide abalone with butterscotch foam will surely be the best sous vide abalone with butterscotch foam you’ll ever eat. Another is to get something traditional, a classic, on the grounds that a roast chicken or a basic risotto or a simple French omelet will let you see the chef’s technique.
If Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are hotshot chefs prone to embracing the outlandish, think of their new Fox drama 9-1-1 as their roasted chicken. They’ll be the driving creative force on plenty of upcoming ambitious and outré anthologies and cable dramas, but their most daring and death-defying trick may be in attempting to put their distinctive fingerprints onto a very conventional broadcast TV procedural.
AIR DATE Jan 03, 2018
The answer, at least based on the one episode made available to critics, for what a Murphy and Falchuk take on this tried-and-true genre would look like is, “Pretty much like a broadcast procedural,” only featuring a cast so outrageously overqualified that it’s hard to totally dismiss.
Written by Murphy and Falchuk and directed by Bradley Buecker, the 9-1-1 pilot sets up a fairly simple version of what I’ve long called a Vocational Irony Narrative. We’re introduced to an assortment of Los Angeles first responders and a line is drawn between the emergencies of their professional lives — adrenaline-fueled catastrophes they can charge into and out of at a moment’s notice — and the everyday emergencies that fuel their personal lives, including ailing relatives, addictions and struggling marriages.
“Is it weird that I feel more comfortable dealing with these kinds of emergencies?” asks call center operator Abby Clark (Connie Britton) of her work catastrophes. Why no, that’s a hallmark of the Vocational Irony Narrative genre, typically populated by heart surgeons who have trouble finding love, psychiatrists plagued by their own weighty issues and morticians who are more comfortable with the dead than with the living.
Abby has to handle the most panicked of civilians, get the information to make sure they get the help they need and often doesn’t find out if her work saved anybody. She also has a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Sometimes Abby puts her calls through to the firehouse. That’s where we find Bobby Nash (Peter Krause), an addict who confesses his lifetime of sins every week in church; sex-hungry hotshot Buck (Oliver Stark); Howie (Kenneth Choi), whose relationship has lost its spark; and Henrietta, who is played by the awesome Aisha Hinds and therefore I’m not worried that she doesn’t have a backstory yet.
Other crimes get put through to the police, where we meet Athena Grant (Angela Bassett), assertive and confident on the job, but still reeling from recent issues with husband Michael (Rockmund Dunbar).
These teams of first responders seem to have jurisdiction around much of Los Angeles and even though they operate separately, they bump into each other on the job with enough frequency that, at the end of the day, the pilot episode feels like a crossover episode for the L.A. equivalent of of Dick Wolf’s NBC Chicago franchise, one that’s likely to make Wolf say, “Wait, I could do a whole series set in Chicago’s 911 dispatch office, too?”
Murphy and Falchuk are trying to emphasize the whiplash nature of life for these first responders and the pilot episode features three major emergencies, following a pre-credit rush that already included a near-drowning and a jumper. There’s a stoner hearing sounds in his wall, a woman dealing with an uncooperative pet and a child worrying about intruders in the suburbs. Each case has a three-act structure that goes, “Thing that sounds simple and bad!” and then “Well, that escalated!” and finally “Quick, character-based resolution for people to talk about either back in the precinct or at home later.”
They’re all in-and-out cases, briefly and limitedly shocking and resolved in under 10 minutes, allowing for Abby to worry about her mother’s nursing care, Athena to shout at her husband and Bobby to see elements of himself in the out-of-control Buck. The content is no more or less heightened or graphic than you’ve seen in dozens of procedurals, the resolutions no more or less creative, the characters no more or less nuanced.
The nuances are perfunctory, but they’re there, and you can see how the combination of decent characters, a somewhat relaxed ensemble work schedule, a straight-to-series order and Ryan Murphy on the phone would get the big names to express curiosity. This isn’t a situation in which Bassett or Krause or Britton, who each would probably be handed basically any pilot role they showed interest in, is going against type. Krause is playing tormented-but-upstanding, Britton’s working nurturing-but-assertive and Bassett is a badass-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown. They’re all doing exactly what you would expect, and they’re doing it on a high level. Since anybody who has ever watched a bad procedural knows how everything can collapse around a miscast captain or chief, it’s comforting to know that it’s a certainty that no matter what elements of 9-1-1 run the risk of disappointing you, the three leads are sturdy pillars, and with Hinds, Choi and Dunbar, you have the sort of top-tier supporting players who could probably anchor their own shows. Stark is the least familiar part of the main cast and you basically can’t have a show like this without the rule-breaking hotshot, so he seems fine, too.
Could subsequent episodes start breaking from the established procedural mold with long-term arcs or massive character twists or stunning emergencies that make you laugh/cry/barf in new ways? Maybe. The pilot doesn’t offer any indication that that’s what Murphy and Falchuk are thinking. It has a high network gloss, repeatable broadcast storytelling and the opportunity to watch an as-good-as-it-gets cast at work. I can’t say how often that’s likely to be enough for me to check in, but I see the appeal.
Cast: Angela Bassett, Peter Krause, Connie Britton, Aisha Hinds, Kenneth Choi, Rockmund Dunbar, Oliver Stark
Creators: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)
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