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As a showcase for Max Thieriot’s appeal, Fire Country is working overtime. Playing Bode, who joins California’s inmate firefighter program in order to reduce his sentence, he has down pat the musclebound stature and puppy-dog expression of a brooding hunk with a heart of gold — and ample time to show off both, thanks to a script that, in the first two hourlong episodes, seizes every opportunity to paint Bode as a uniquely brave and brilliant soul.
To be sure, Bode is no saint — we learn early on that the reason he was incarcerated in the first place was that he pled guilty to armed robbery. He’s simply a scruffy knight in fire-resistant armor, tailor-made for audiences to admire and swoon over. The gambit works possibly too well: So overwhelming is the Bode-ness of it all that Fire Country leaves little oxygen for anything or anyone else, flattening what could have been a smarter, more interesting procedural.
Cast: Max Thieriot, Billy Burke, Kevin Alejandro, Diane Farr, Stephanie Arcila, Jordan Calloway, Jules Latimer
Executive producers: Max Thieriot, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, Tia Napolitano, Jonathan Littman, KristieAnne Reed
Fire Country, inspired by Thieriot’s own experiences growing up in a fire-prone area of California (he serves as executive producer and received a “story by” credit on the pilot), finds Bode enlisting in the program only as a last resort, after he’s denied for parole. Yet despite his inexperience, he quickly proves a natural. On his very first fire, which comes midway through the premiere, he reveals himself to be the sort of man who’ll run headfirst into danger to save a stranger, direct commands to stay put be damned. The problem is that he happens to have been stationed in his old hometown of Edgewater, which he’d fled under mysterious circumstances some years prior.
The series takes its time mapping out precisely how all the principal players are connected to Bode, adding a bit of soapy intrigue to go with the flame-based episodic storylines. The cast surrounding Thieriot show sparks of potential: Billy Burke and Diane Farr share an intriguingly complicated chemistry as a pair of married fire chiefs whose hard-won happiness is threatened by the secrets Bode’s arrival threatens to reveal, while Jordan Calloway and Jules Latimer make for a fun pair of elite firefighter BFFs trading encouragement and dating advice between emergencies.
But they’re let down by a script that sounds too often like a first draft waiting for some nuance and personality to flesh out its core ideas. Fire Country could spend some time exploring the psychologies of its firefighters — what attracts them to such dangerous jobs in the first place and what makes them excel at it, and the personal toll that constant peril can take on a person’s life. Instead, it simply has Eve (Latimer) observe to the commitment-averse Jake (Calloway), “We’re afraid to get close to anyone because what if we do and we die.” It’s a poignant idea, but not when it’s stated so baldly as that.
At least Jake and Eve’s inner lives merit some consideration. Fire Country notably spares very little time or attention for the all-prisoner firefighting team that Bode ostensibly spends most of his time with. The sole exception is Freddy (W. Tre Davis), who serves variously as comic relief for an otherwise straight-faced show, or as the Goofus to Bode’s Gallant. The rest remain a largely anonymous, interchangeable collection of faces surrounding Bode. (And lest you assume that could change as the season progresses, even Davis is credited as a recurring guest rather than a series regular.)
It’s a missed opportunity to dig into the specific experiences of California’s inmate firefighters — to examine the relationship between professional firefighters and their incarcerated counterparts, or to question how participants in the program who aren’t angsty heroes forced to return to their hometowns might feel about the bargain they’ve struck. (There is a brief conversation on the prison bus about how comparatively good the money is — $5 a day, more if there’s a fire — which briefly makes Fire Country feel like a commercial for the program.) Nor does Fire Country have any apparent interest in delving into the causes and effects of the steadily increasing fire risk in California, thanks to climate change.
Perhaps nuanced discussions of such heated issues are too much to expect from Fire Country, which does not pretend to harbor ambitions of hard-hitting commentary. Its aim is to deliver the reliable pleasures of watching good-hearted, good-looking people overcome adversity in 45 minutes or less, while occasionally getting embroiled in juicy personal drama. That, it accomplishes handily — the first two installments alone include a car crash, a lighting storm, a rescue effort for a baby and a race against time to save a dying man. In the real world, fires can wreak unpredictable havoc, leaving plenty of blame to go around in their wake.
In Fire Country, the fires seem to come from nowhere, and their repercussions rain down offscreen to characters we don’t see enough of to care about. They’re amoral forces of nature that our characters have no trouble confining to the edges of our TVs. It’s a sort of comfort.
However, Fire Country‘s incuriosity also undermines the more personal themes it does want to grapple with — namely those about forgiveness and second chances. At the close of the second episode, Bode’s boss Manny (Kevin Alejandro) stresses to him that Cal Fire is his opportunity to either remain the “deadbeat” some presume him to be, or rise to become “the man” that Manny knows Bode can be, lavishing praise on Bode for his innate fearlessness, intuition and leadership.
As advice goes, it’s not terrible. But it is telling that Manny offers it just to Bode, while surrounded by empty prison cots that remind us that Bode is one of many. While Bode worries that his redemption will be hard to come by, Fire Country‘s already made up its mind by portraying him as an exceptional individual so clearly deserving of it — even womanizer Jake and anguished Vince are painted as more obviously flawed, Bode’s armed robbery conviction notwithstanding. Its message might hit harder if it tried harder to extend some of that grace to those who could actually use it.
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