On the one hand, the concept and promotion for FOX’s “9-1-1” suggest that the show is a fairly conventional procedural in the vein of the dramas one may find on NBC.
On the other hand, it was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who are certainly not known for basic, straightforward television.
It was therefore natural to wonder whether the advertising campaign was misleading. Clearly, “9-1-1” had to involve some Ryan Murphy-esque twist.
Based on the pilot episode, it does not.
“9-1-1” follows a group of emergency first responders in the Los Angeles area. Key characters include 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher Abby Clark (Connie Britton), fire captain Bobby Nash (Peter Krause), firefighter Evan “Buck” Buckley (Oliver Stark), firefighter/paramedic Howie “Chimney” Han (Kenneth Choi), firefighter/paramedic Henrietta “Hen” Wilson (Aisha Hinds) and police sergeant Athena Grant (Angela Bassett). Rockmond Dunbar additionally stars as Athena’s husband.
While dealing with personal drama (one is caring for a sick mother, one has marital issues, one is immature, one is dealing with demons from the past), they save lives in high-stakes situations.
Cases featured in the pilot include a newborn baby stuck in an apartment’s plumbing, a woman being suffocated by her pet snake, and a home invasion.
Yes, it is a bit more character-driven than a typical procedural. Yes, the pacing and direction are a bit more dramatic and intense than a typical procedural. Yes, some of the individual “cases” are a bit unusual.
At its core, however, “9-1-1” is a very conventional series about characters in a familiar dramatic world. The characters – and their backstories/personal drama – are pretty typical and familiar. The cases, while quirky at times, play out in accordance with procedural norm. The humor is there – but minimal. The “side drama” is just that – “side drama.”
With a premise that is not even particularly exciting (let alone gamechanging), “9-1-1” will not win any points for creativity, edge or innovation. It is a basic, formulaic network drama.
While the concept and stories are uninspired, the show is not without its upside.
Thanks to the aforementioned strong pacing and direction, the show boasts a heightened atmosphere befitting the emergencies facing the characters. “9-1-1” is by no means as raw or intense an elite cable drama, but its environment conveys more urgency than that typically found on network TV.
The cast members, moreover, step up to the plate with universally strong performances — a thoroughly unsurprising reality given the names involved.
Despite operating within the confines of rote writing and characterization, each performer is relentlessly committed to capturing — and conveying — the stress, anxiety and urgency associated with the emergency situations. Commanding without being unnatural, the actors help this show feel as “real” as it possibly could.
Britton is particularly impressive in the premiere. As a normal woman in a non-glamorous job, the Abby character offers no shortcuts. As the 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher, the character is also responsible for engaging viewers in the drama — even though she, herself, is nowhere near the physical center of the action.
The only pathway to making an impact is through real, honest emotion and energy.
Britton is certainly up to the task. She completely understands the nature of the role, delivering a performance that is understated without being forgettable. She makes even the slightest comment or facial expression count, in the process creating a believable and engaging lead character.
“Believability” is, in fact, the central tenet of the “9-1-1” cast. The acting here is not about outrageous, over-the-top scenery chewing. It is not about being “loud.” It is about being credible.
Krause proves adept at this quality, showcasing “working man’s charm” throughout the premiere episode. He comes across as a believable fire captain. More importantly, he comes across as a real person.
Some of the premiere’s greatest “development” concerns “Buck” and Athena (who, incidentally, butt heads with each other). Buck has the passion and skill to be a great firefighter but has trouble overcoming temptation, impulsiveness and immaturity. Athena is dealing with a difficult situation with her husband and children.
The actors behind the characters make the most of the attention. Oliver Stark brings a refreshing, endearing charisma to Buck. Bassett has the chance to do the most “acting” in a conventional sense, and she seizes the opportunity. She is quite compelling.
While not centerpieces of the episode, the other regulars have plenty of opportunity to play off — and build relationships — with the focus characters. They all fare well.
The downside to honest, understated acting, however, is that it does not truly help the show escape the shackles of its formulaic structure. Viewers will certainly appreciate the quality of the work, but they may not be excited by it. They may not view the acting as a compelling enough incentive to overlook the show’s limitations.
The upside is that it provides a great framework should the show tighten and improve its narrative voice moving forward. By making the characters feel real in episode one, the actors ensure that twists, developments and emotions will mean something down the road.
That may not be enough to turn “9-1-1” into an enthralling, must-see affair, but it could help to distance the series from similar network procedurals.
The overall takeaway is that passionate Ryan Murphy fans will not necessarily get much out of “9-1-1.” It feels only loosely — if at all — connected to his brand and style.
Fans of procedural/crime/medical dramas may, however, want to sample “9-1-1.” The storylines are fine for the genre, and the acting is definitely above average.
It is worth noting that “9-1-1” is leading out of “The X-Files” and thus receiving the best possible lead-in currently available on FOX. That by no means guarantees big ratings, but it at least gives “9-1-1” a chance to attract a solid sampling.
“9-1-1” premieres at 9PM ET/PT on January 3.