If there was a Dream-Casting BINGO card designed specifically for Pajiba, featuring the names of all the actors we’d tune in to watch each week, then Fox’s intense new drama 9-1-1 would get us 3/5ths of the way to winning. It’d give us, like, B-I-N or something. I also maybe don’t know how BINGO works.
Point is — there is now a single hour of weekly television where we can see Peter Krause, Connie Britton, AND the glorious Angela Bassett not-aging and being captivating together. Remarkably, 9-1-1 is just as impressive behind the cameras as in front of them: The show was created by the epic trinity of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Tim Minear. And the plot? Well, the show follows first responders in Los Angeles, from the dispatchers answering the emergency calls (Britton) to the firemen (Krause) and police officers (Bassett) who arrive at the scene.
The aesthetic the show seems to be aiming for is “a lot” with a side of “fuck it — let’s do some more.” And structurally it works… mostly. Time has no meaning in the premiere, and as a viewer you get lulled into the same sense of crisis-rinse-repeat that the characters must be feeling. The heart-stopping emergencies themselves are where the show truly excels, and in typical Ryan Murphy form they are NOT boring. In a single episode our heroes respond to a woman being strangled by her own snake, a suicidal jumper, a baby who’s been flushed down a drain and is crying from the pipes, a home invasion called in by a scared young girl trapped inside the house, and more. Look, I don’t live in LA and I can’t say whether this is indicative of a typical emergency shift. Hell, I’m honestly not sure if the show can or should sustain that level of batshit insanity each week. But to its credit, it does pull it off here — by keeping the tension high and leaning on the actors to sell each crisis. They aren’t showboating or pulling focus, and while I can’t say the show is gritty or realistic in the least, the leads (and the outstanding supporting actors including Kenneth Choi and Aisha Hinds) play it straight, with a believable mixture of adrenaline, weariness, and experience that makes even the craziest situations work.
But any show that coasts on adrenaline highs must have its lulls, and that’s where the show needs to find its footing. Britton’s Abby Clark takes care of her mother in her off hours, a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s who needs around the clock care. Krause’s Bobby Nash confesses to his priest each week and is 18 months sober. And Bassett’s Athena Grant comes home each day to a husband who has just come out of the closet and kids who are having as much trouble accepting it as she is. The idea, underscored in the most on-the-nose voiceover EVER by Abby, is that their personal emergencies make going to work almost a relief. That in the context of their own lives, the crises they tackle each shift don’t seem quite so scary. But to return to the point above: there is A LOT going on in this show. And while the idea that first responders might have troubled personal lives makes sense, it’s hard to make us care about that in the face of babies stuck in pipes. If the show focused on ONE character, then maybe it would pull it off. But balancing three leads, from three different departments, who weave and intersect in different ways case by case, and THEN adding each of their personal soap operas to the mix? The conceit is stretched just a tad too thin.
Perhaps that will only be a problem with the premiere, since there was so much to establish. I’m curious to see how the balance will shake out in subsequent weeks, because this show isn’t quite like anything else I’ve seen. Most procedurals have a case each week, then show the evolving lives of the main characters — but then again, most procedurals have main characters who actually work together. The key to 9-1-1, its blessing and its curse, is that the characters barely know each other. Abby is stuck on her headset in a preposterous central office that looks like the Jeffersonian from Bones without the lab coats. Her tragedy is that she’s the first to speak with the victims, but when the cops or firemen or paramedics arrive the phone hangs up, and she rarely finds out if everything turns out OK. That emotion, tied to her job and how good she is at it, feels more real and earned than anything happening in her life at home. Meanwhile, Bobby’s crew intersects with Athena’s periodically, but not always. There is a familiarity born of wading into the shit together often enough, but it’s clear that their goals in each emergency are very different. For example, Bobby is hard at work cutting the baby out of the pipe while Athena and her officers knock on doors in the floors above, trying to find the person who flushed the child. The dynamic interplay of all these moving parts is fascinating, but I can’t see how that can stretch out for a full season. There is no over-arching plot to uncover in a rotation of emergency situation like this, which would leave the development of the characters’ personal lives as the main area for any kind of progress in the series. And Murphy & Co. will have their work cut out for them if they plan on making me give a shit about Abby, Bobby, and Athena’s home lives when there are snakes that need beheading.
One final thought: I get that these sorts of shows benefit from having a rookie. After all, the easiest ways to make the vets seem experienced is to give them a newbie to show the ropes to. It also provides a built-in character arc, by having that rookie learn what it means to be a hero or whatever. BUT: if 9-1-1 doesn’t get Buck (Oliver Stark) past this axe-wielding, self-diagnosed “sex addict” bullshit fast it’s going to be a problem. At first I figured rooting for a dude who takes the fire engine out to hook up with chicks would be easy, but by the end of the premiere I never wanted to see him again. I don’t need my characters to be saints in order to be sympathetic, but something about his particular brand of boneheadedness was a major turn off. Here’s hoping he grows the fuck up, sooner rather than later.