In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
I think history will be kind to Ryan Murphy, whether we like it or not. Certainly one of the few household names working primarily in network television, perhaps even the label of “auteur” isn’t entirely unwarranted when it comes to the man who gave us GLEE and AMERICAN HORROR STORY. Two of the most enduring cultural forces of the late aughts and early teens, Murphy’s gleeful embracing of melodramatic pulp may turn off some more discerning viewers, but is easily identifiable, commercially successful, and continues to carry shows such as AMERICAN CRIME STORY and FEUD to the finish line. As such, anything with his name on it will pique the interest, and the announcement of 9-1-1, ostensibly a more conventional and grounded procedural, was no different. But don’t you worry, Murphy is still up to the same old tricks, and while 9-1-1 is just as much of a hot mess as his other work, it’s also undeniably quite a bit of fun.
9-1-1 tracks an ensemble cast of firefighters, police, and emergency dispatchers as they deal with whatever bizarre circumstances their job places them in on a daily basis, also taking time to keep tabs on the difficulties of their lives when they take off the uniform. Bobby Nash (Peter Krause) oversees a fire squad consisting of Buck (Oliver Stark), Hen (Aisha Hinds), and Chimney (Kenneth Choi), while Abby Clark (Connie Britton) mans the dispatch and LAPD patrol sergeant Athena Grant (Angela Bassett) begrudgingly gets dragged into the fire department’s mess. It’s certainly a concept we’ve seen before, but the Murphy touch is evident in the casual, easy diversity and the fact that things are deeply, truly, fundamentally bananas.
Me, warily keeping an eye on the writers’ room
There is really no better acid test for 9-1-1 than around the 15 minute mark, where Bobby’s squad of firefighters is called into an apartment by a stoned young man who thinks he’s heard a baby crying in the wall. If this were any other show the characters would laugh him off, give him a lecture on abusing the phone line, and take the opportunity to lament about how many fake calls they get a day. Well not with Ryan Fucking Murphy at the helm, oh no: turns out there is a full-grown baby in the wall, as it got flushed down a toilet and stuck in the plumbing. The firefighters scramble to bust open the drain vein and saw the sewage-soaked moppet out before rushing it to the hospital without blinking an eye. It’s this sort of unapologetic goofiness played with a straight face that has made Murphy polarizing throughout his career, but those who can stomach it are sure to be delighted upon realizing it permeates every second of runtime.
We’ve got it all! Buck ripping his fire truck through the entirely traffic-free streets of LA to pick up women from dating apps who then plow him in it! An emergency call from a woman whose snake is strangling her, only for LA’s finest to burst in and chop its head off with an axe! Athena and her husband getting into slapfights after he reveals at the breakfast table that he’s gay! Buck swerving onto the scene in his truck and water-blasting an escaping perpetrator off of his motorcycle! My personal favorite: the sharp cut to Abby’s look of startled bemusement every time the next ridiculous emergency is relayed to her! It’s still entertainment if you’re laughing at it, and not with it, right?
Every. Single. Time.
The biggest problem I have with the show is its structure. All the above is fine and good; I’ve slogged through enough molasses-slow boilerplate dramas and “comedies” to appreciate knee-jerk, mouth-agape titillation when it’s delivered to me without cynicism. What’s initially keeping 9-1-1 from transcending its shlock into something with lasting cache is the fact that it doesn’t really know what story it wants to tell. Now I’ll admit it, I never grew up with a CSI or LAW & ORDER, so maybe I’m just getting rubbed the wrong way by the inherent premise of a procedural. But I feel as if there are only so many vignettes I can realistically swallow before the wheels begin to spin in the mud.
The pilot introduces two arcs with the potential to expand: the terse, father-son-reminiscent relationship of Bobby and Buck, and Athena’s struggle with realizing that the life she created with her husband is a lie. The Athena subplot is actually the most traditionally meritable element of the show so far, a well-acted and properly dramatic stew of conflicting emotions and self-aggrandizement with some slapfights sprinkled on top. Bobby and Buck, however, are just two white machomen who get into tiffs but clearly love each other, bro. While I’m always down to watch Angela Bassett do her thing, my hopes are not quite as high for Buck’s inevitable climb to being the new alpha.
For now, I think 9-1-1 deserves a chance to die another day. This is pitch-perfect televised junk food, an excellent excuse to kick your feet up, pop open a cold one and bag of chips, and tune out of the nightmarish realities of our daily existence. It will have to gain a little more narrative assurance and direction before I can fully recommend it, but I can promise you that you certainly won’t be bored tuning in for the time being.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
9-1-1 airs on Wednesdays on FOX