9–1–1 Is That Rare Thing: A Character Driven Procedural
And A Relatively Calm Ryan Murphy Series
The police and medical procedurals have rarely much creative or imaginative life to them in the past twenty years. Law & Order and ER may have been among the biggest hits in television history, but the constant changeover in cast was so repetitive, one got feeling that the actual characters never mattered that much to either Dick Wolf or John Wells. Certainly the Chicago franchises on NBC have doubled down on that idea.
Which is why it’s such a pleasant surprise to find that one of the biggest hits currently on network TV is 911, Fox’s series devoted to LA first responders — police, firefighters, and the people who take the calls. What makes it even more astonishing is that the head writer is Ryan Murphy, an exceptionally gifted writer who nevertheless seems to do his work when he focuses on camp — witness Glee or American Horror Story his two biggest hits. I kept watching all of Season 2, waiting for him to explode into excess with everything that was going on in these characters lives and all of their calls. But it hasn’t happened yet. There’ve been some pretty unusual emergencies — an earthquake was at the center of the opening of Season 2, and a tidal wave was at the start of Season 3. But none of that would’ve been out of place on ER. It’s a little like hearing Tony Bennett singing Lady Gaga standards, which he does very well.
It helps immensely that Murphy has hired a cast that is known for underplaying everything. Peter Krause plays Bobby Nash, a fire chief who, while he has had his struggles with the bottle and personal trauma, remains the man you’d absolutely want beside you in an emergency. Angela Bassett, a Murphy regular in so many seasons of AHS, is a beacon of sensibility as Sgt. Athena Massey, tapping into the respect and authority she has done in so many great films. Jennifer Love Hewitt took a bit longer to find a groove as Maddie, a nurse turned 911 operator, but given a storyline that dealt with being a victim of abuse has given her something solid to sink her teeth in. During the second season, she was kidnapped by her abusive ex-husband, and though she has seemed to recover, there are signs that the trauma has never quite gone away.
Indeed, all of the actors in this cast do solid work that leaves lots of room for character growth. Oliver Stark has done solid work as Michael, a divorcee with a son suffering from cerebral palsy, who lost the mother of his child in the second season finale. Aisha Hinds has done good work as a lesbian firefighter trying to have children with her new wife. And the series seems to be doing revolutionary work in having most of the men and woman in the cast in solid, committed relationships, not only with their spouses, but with their exes. Athena was apparently married to Greg, a man who came out of the closet after they had two children together, and they don’t seem to have any real problems. Hell, her ex even had an enlightening conversation with her current husband a couple of times in the last episode.
In an even greater rarity for a Murphy program — at least the ones he does for network TV — not only are all of the characters three-dimensional, but when the series grapples with real-life, it doesn’t pretend there are easy answers, or even if there are answers at all. Last night, Greg and his children were pulled over in a traffic stop, which could’ve gone south very quickly had Greg not mentioned his wife was LAPRD. Greg and Bobby had a very serious conversation, where Greg admitted that he wasn’t ready to have the conversation about being black and dealing with the police with his eight-year old son. Athena went out of her way to try and press for action, but she knew very well that nothing was going to happen. No cops were brought down, and it doesn’t look like anything will change. That’s something Dick Wolf would never have allowed to happen on one of his series.
9–1–1 isn’t a great series, though I can’t help but think that in an earlier era Krause and Bassett would be at least considered for Emmy nominations. But it really goes out of its way to do what so many other medical and police dramas even try to do: show that there is genuinely life in a standard without trying to lead it down the conventional roads of what the networks consider procedurals. It’s not high art, but it sure as hell reveals just how empty NBC’s Wednesday Chicago lineup real is.
My score: 4 stars.