Strong cast sells the heck out of Fox’s ‘9-1-1’

“What’s your emergency?” asks the pilot of Fox’s new drama 9-1-1. According to the pilot, there are two types of emergencies: The first are personal emergencies, the ones the define our individual day-to-day, and the second are life-or-death Emergencies with a capital E, the kind that prompt you to dial those three numbers that the show is all about. On 9-1-1, a team of first responders in Los Angeles deal with both types of emergencies – at home and on the job – so there’s never a dull moment.

From Glee‘s Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, 9-1-1 stars Connie Britton as phone operator Abby Clark, the first voice and face we’re met with in the pilot because there is nothing more comforting than the proximate presence of Tami Taylor. Abby has a unique role in the emergency response process in that she’s the first to find out about something but also the first to be cut from the narrative; most emergencies end with her never finding out what happened.

Then there’s Bobby Nash (Peter Krause, exuding authority) and his team of fire department first responders including a young fireman who legitimately uses the truck to chase down a booty call. Firehose, as she calls him, is the most blatantly two-dimensional character on 9-1-1, perhaps because like his alter-ego, actor Oliver Stark has yet to absorb the wisdom and subtlety of his costars.

But it could happen.

Bobby admonishes Firehose for his frivolity; “This is not a family, it’s not a club house,” he says, to which his colleague replies, “See the fire, put out the fire, the rest is blah blah.” Ah, screenwriting.

EMERGENCY #1: The baby in the wall

The screen goes dark with a sound wave whenever someone dials in, and text appears on the screen: “9-1-1 what’s your emergency?” followed by the caller’s response and description of his emergency (“Someone flushed a baby down the toilet!”). As absurd as the flushed-baby emergency is, the responders hear it crying behind a bathroom wall just like the caller reported. Apparently, a premature baby’s bones could bend enough to flush down a toilet, which is horrifying enough information to process without having to watch the team immediately try to cut into the wall.

A baby in a toilet pipe sounds like  Brooklyn Nine-Nine emergency (that’s two Brooklyn Nine-Nine references so far and no promise that more aren’t forthcoming), but there’s no drama like network TV drama with its sensational music, overhead camera angles, and Peter Krause and Angela Bassett selling the heck out of this. Indeed, Krause, Bassett, and Britton are the backbone of this show – to no one’s surprise – and you can’t help wondering if the stakes would drop through the floor without them.

Anyway, back to that plumbing baby, which is real, trapped tightly inside a pipe, and pushed out carefully. While the first responders perform CPR on the baby, Bassett’s L.A.P.D. officer goes to investigate the culprit who stuffed said baby down the pipes from a floor above; the mother is hiding in her bed, in critical condition.

Young Firehose appears humbled by his brush with death and its proximity to the miracle of life, but he regains his swagger within seconds of being told that the responders may never even find out what happens to the baby. Bassett arrives to reprimand him for almost leaving the mother behind while rescuing the baby. “You do not get to choose who lives and who dies,” she says.

“Really? Cause I was under the impression that kind of was my job,” he says in your best impression of a Cali bro.

“The next time you screw up, it’ll be your last,” Athena goes on to warn him. 

Athena’s Type 1 emergency at home is that she recently learned her husband is gay. There’s no plan to divorce, but it does create a significant shakeup in the home life and gain little sympathy when they tell the kids. Athena is furious that he kept his sexuality from her and feels humiliated by his coming out; her husband, in turn, alleges that she always knew and denied it so that they could have children and start a life. 

EMERGENCY #2: The girl being choked by her illegal pet snake

Howie is terrified of snakes, so he keeps his distance while the others try to ascertain the best way to save the owner without killing her pet. But there’s no time as her minutes without oxygen tick by, and upon seeing that, Firehose literally decapitates the snake with an axe.

Once again, it’s a wild emergency – and then he starts flirting with the snake’s owner on the spot. In the next scene, Bob tracks him down using the fire truck’s GPS and finds Firehose and “the snake hoarder” hooking up on a rooftop. Ridiculous? Absolutely, and that’s why Bob fires him (ha) on the spot.

EMERGENCY #3: The break in

Nine-year-old Lily, who doesn’t even know her own address, reports that her house is being broken into. All she knows is she’s in a brown house on Lambert road. She shares her mom’s number with Abby – she can’t hang up the phone and her location services probably won’t work otherwise – but Mom left her phone charging in her bedroom.

Since they don’t know Lily’s exact location, it’ll take the combined forces of the L.A.P.D. and fire department first responders to comb Lambert road and find the house. Freshly banished Firehose ends up on a loan to Athena for the job, and he’s the one who drives past Lily’s house just moments before her mother pulls up in the driveway. As Athena sneaks up on the house, the trespassers find Lily.

This is Abby’s moment to shine. She’s caught one burglar’s name and shouts it out to get his attention. She lures him and his partner out of the house, initiating a chase between them and Athena. As the burglar tries to flee on a motorcycle with Athena pursuing on foot, Firehose catches him in his tracks with – wait for it – the firehose. During this scene we learn that his name is Buckley. Sure.

Saving Lily earns Buckley a reprieve and the begrudging respect of Athena who calls her husband in the aftermath just to check in. Empathizing with Buckley doesn’t come naturally, but 9-1-1 seems to want us to root for him. The pilot ends on a dissonantly sunny note (set to “Pressure”), but that’s because the audience shouldn’t feel the lingering gravity of these emergencies, just as the characters shouldn’t; the only way they can do their job is by picking themselves up and moving determinedly from one day to the next.

9-1-1 has a lot to compete with in terms of drama about medicine and law enforcement, not to mention the entire Chicago show franchise (it wouldn’t be surprising if an early draft of this was called L.A. Fire), but it has a powerful cast and some daring writing trying to set it apart (see above re: baby and snake). The brave heroes anchoring its cast save the show from sliding into Cringeville, and for that, we thank them for their service.

9-1-1 airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST on Fox.

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