Yeah, It’s A Formula Show. So?
I’ve had a problem with a lot of procedural series for a while, going as far back as ER and much of Dick Wolf’s oeuvre. But over the last few years, I’ve been more than willing to make an exception for Fox’s 9–1–1, a series that some critics have dismissed as ‘disaster porn’.
To be fair, it’s really hard not to see where they’re coming from. Season 2 open with a massive earthquake. Season 3 opened with a tidal wave. And this season’s opening arc has involved a massive quake breaking down the reservoir and causing the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign to be floated down hill. And if it were just because of the crises, one could see this easily being done by the hand of Michael Bay. But it’s done by Ryan Murphy who, as anyone who remotely knows of his work (American Horror Story is the prime example) knows that he is fond of going to excess.
But what makes me lean more in favor of this series than some of his other work is that Murphy, who will go towards excesses of camp in almost all his network series, is playing most of the characters in 9–1–1 relatively straight. Most of the characters do not lean towards the excesses that we saw in Glee and Scream Queens; instead, they are human beings trying to get through a day’s work. And perhaps more than any show on television in the era of the pandemic, 9–1–1 seems to have its pulse firmly on the world we live in. (Trying to figure out a person’s level of competency, a paramedic asks a victim “What year is it?” Her response: “Don’t make me say it.”)
As we all know, our first responders and emergency care workers have been stressed to the limit during this past year. 9–1–1 handles this with far more competency and subtlety than just about any series I have seen in the 2020–2021 season so far. Chimney and Maddie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who found out they were having a baby in the Season 3 finale apparently spent most of the hiatus in separate apartments, ostensibly to keep the child safe, mostly out of Chimney’s personal fears. Bobby Nash (Peter Krause, once again playing his everyman personality to perfection) is running the fire station trying to deal with the crisis in the world with the problems with his family. And Athena (frequent Murphy player Angela Bassett) is back on the job after a major assault, but it takes a crisis for her to realize that she may not be ready to be back.
In a way, 9–1–1 has a better handle on the idea of family than any Murphy series since the early days of Glee. Athena is still reeling from the fact that her daughter May has abandoned her plans for college to work at a call center, and doesn’t seem to realize just how powerless May feels. This is made clear very quickly when her mother is in a crisis. Even though Athena has long since moved on with Bobby, it is clear how big a role her ex-husband will always play in her life. ‘Hen’ Wilson (Aisha Hinds) having spent so much of the last year trying to get a family, is now trying to move on professionally: she’s going to med school (on Zoom, of course) And Buck, still dealing with the fall out from last year’s finale, is now facing his own issues in therapy. 9–1–1 makes it clear that the family you’re born in and the family you work with are just as important.
So yes, 9–1–1 is in a sense disaster porn. But considering that we’re all basically living in a disaster movie right now, makes it to hard to argue that it’s not relevant. And considering that so many of these shows put the disaster above character development, shouldn’t we celebrate a series that does the reverse? It may be a formula show, but a formula works for a reason.
My score: 3.75 stars.