9-1-1, a new hour-long drama focused on first responders, sounds like one of those action-dramas that dominate the CBS prime-time lineup, or, possibly, a duplicative addition to NBC’s robust roster of Chicago shows. It is neither of those things.
The Fox series, which debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m., comes from the Ryan Murphy–Brad Falchuk production machine, which means that, despite some standard features — suspenseful emergency situations, a young fire and rescue rookie who refuses to follow the rules — it’s quirkier and better than the usual fare in the overcrowded medical/cop genre. It’s also got a dream ensemble that includes Angela Bassett as a veteran police officer, Peter Krause as a recovering addict fire captain, and Connie Britton as a 911 operator, which is just perfect casting because when I’m in crisis mode, there’s no one I’d rather have guiding me than the woman who played Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights.
The first episode, written by Murphy, Falchuk, and showrunner/co-creator Tim Minear and directed by Murphy series regular Bradley Buecker, introduces us to those core characters, then follows them and their respective colleagues as they tackle various emergencies, each slightly more outlandish than what happened moments earlier. In one case, a stoner who swears he can hear a baby crying in the walls of his apartment bathroom prompts Krause’s Bobby Nash and team to extricate an infant from the pipes while Bassett’s Sargeant Athena Grant races through the building in an effort to find the young woman who gave birth, then flushed the child down the toilet. In another, a woman dials 911 because she’s choking to death; upon arrival, the fire and rescue unit realizes that’s because one of her massive pet snakes has twisted itself around her neck. As soon as one situation gets resolved, there’s always another call coming in, and when there isn’t, the main characters have personal problems of their own to confront. There is no rest for these brave helpers, and that ensures that 9-1-1 is never boring.
While the emergencies presented are intense and, in at least some cases, inspired by actual events, 9-1-1 is neither hyperrealistic nor gritty. There’s a glossy sheen in the show’s visual presentation that makes it impossible to forget you’re watching a TV show. (Even the setup at the fire station looks like it was created by the Nancy Meyer Studio for Kitchen and Home Design.) It also goes to some storytelling extremes right off the bat, as Athena grapples with the fact that her husband (Rockmond Dunbar) has come out of the closet, Bobby openly struggles to stay on the wagon, and Britton’s Abby continues to care for her mother, who lives with her and has Alzheimer’s. Then there’s Buck (Oliver Stark), the aforementioned rule-breaking rookie who’s skilled but also, according to him anyway, a sex addict. The always great Aisha Hinds, as a fellow paramedic, invests a lot of time in the pilot justifiably shaking her head at this dude.
“You are doing a lot, show” is something I wrote in my notes while watching all of these details establish themselves. But in the first episode at least, 9-1-1 keeps any temptation to overdo melodrama in appropriate check. I wish Fox had provided more episodes to screen in advance, partly so I could see if the series continues to strike the right balance and partly because I’m genuinely interested in seeing what happens next.
Because Bassett, Krause, and Britton are three actors that an audience naturally roots for, they immediately earn our trust and make us care about them. By flinging them and their co-workers into unbearably tense situations every ten minutes, 9-1-1 also reminds us that life is nothing but nonstop curveballs for everybody, even the men and women devoted to protecting the rest of us. This is adrenaline-rush TV. It’s instantly compelling, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and a pretty solid way to start 2018.
This article has been corrected to show that 9-1-1 co-creator Tim Minear co-wrote the pilot.