The drama about the truck and rescue squads of a fictional Chicago firehouse lacked the moody darkness, charismatic antiheroes and explosive violence of critical darlings such as "Breaking Bad," "Homeland," "Boardwalk Empire," "Dexter" and "Sons of Anarchy."
The show's retro vibe and focus on heroism were decidedly more "old school" than "new cool."
The template also appeared a bit too close to those of "Rescue Me," "Third Watch" and other recent series centered on emergency workers. The cast largely consisted of unknowns; the most recognizable faces were a supporting actor from "Sex and the City" and an actress who starred in the horror-torture epic "Hostel Part II."
But as the season winds down, "Chicago Fire" has quietly emerged as one of the few bright lights in NBC's troubled prime-time lineup, outdistancing series with higher concepts and bigger stars such as "Smash," "Revolution," "The New Normal" and "Go On."
Its pairing with veteran "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has formed a solid two-hour block for the network.
The future of "Chicago Fire" is discussed with cautious enthusiasm. "We're very optimistic," said executive producer Dick Wolf.
The momentum of "Chicago Fire" is particularly gratifying for Wolf: It marks a success unconnected to the "Law & Order" brand he created more than 20 years ago. It also marks a significant thematic departure: Though the "Law & Order" mother ship rarely explored the personal lives of its core characters, the personal lives of the "Chicago Fire" characters are center stage.
"We have a very delicate balance between action and soap opera," Wolf said.
"The show is the purest example of retro TV, or comfort food."
The formula of "Chicago Fire" has been consistent: high-octane action sequences where lives are at stake mixed with volatile human drama. Lt. Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer) has family issues and feelings for his former fiance.
Lt. Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney) is recovering from a painkiller addiction. Paramedic Gabriela Dawson (Monica Raymund) is pining after Casey even though she's starting a romance with trainee Peter Mills (Charlie Barnett).
Fellow paramedic Leslie Shay (Lauren German) is a lesbian who can't seem to cut ties with a former girlfriend who has just given birth to her husband's baby.
"They're a dysfunctional family who are forced to get through it. Then there are these calls, which bring this spike of adrenaline, and everyone has to pull together," said producer Matt Olmstead.
The large ensemble includes Eamonn Walker ("Oz") and David Eigenberg (Steve in "Sex and the City"). Kinney and "Hostel Part II's" German have generated the most interest.
But the most prominent star, and the key ingredient behind the appeal of "Chicago Fire," according to Wolf, is Chicago.
"If you set this show in Los Angeles, people would say, 'Oh, come on.' But this is about the heart of the country. It's real."
"Chicago Fire" is on at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC.
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