By Rick Bentley
Tribune News Service
A popular genre over the decades when it comes to creating a new television show has been anything to do with the lives, loves, lusts and lunacy of being a first responder. It’s an easy formula because the challenges for the heroes are generally self-contained stories where the audience gets the weekly satisfaction of seeing a job well done.
Since the concept is so basic, what makes this kind of show a success or failure comes down to the cast. As long as there are one or two characters who grab the viewer’s attention with such verbosity they are willing to commit to regular viewing, the show will survive. In the case of the latest offering in this familiar genre, the new Fox series “9-1-1,” the production has three powerful reasons to watch: Angela Bassett, Peter Krause and Connie Britton. The series premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
The three star in the series, which explores the high-pressure experiences of police, paramedics and firefighters who constantly are thrown into emergency situations. It all starts with the simple question of “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” The answer leads to each week’s challenges both in saving lives and dealing with events going on in their own personal worlds. Along with being heroes, the three actors get to play strong characters who are all dealing with major events away from the world of car crashes, police chases and raging fires.
When it comes to Bassett’s character of Det. Athena Grant, she is a no-nonsense member of the police force who demands as much perfection from those around her as she does of herself. At the same time she’s dealing with the dangerous world of life on the streets, Grant also is trying to handle all the changes that come when her husband makes a major announcement.
The character must be played with an incredible amount of intensity, and Bassett handles that with ease. The role is elevated because Bassett has the skills to be both an in-your-face defender of the law as well as a strong but vulnerable wife and mother facing a brave new world.
Krause plays Bobby Nash, a recovering alcoholic who has gotten his life back together despite having a job where failure is a real possibility. He needs to hold his own life together while handling a team of firefighters with their own wild mix of personalities. It’s nice to see Krause taking on this kind of paternal role that will give him a lot of emotional areas to work.
Then there is Britton, who makes TV shows better just by being in the cast. Her character of Abby Clark has the high pressure job of being able to find out from people in a panic what emergency has resulted in them dialing the three numbers. Clark has her own problems dealing with her mother’s medical issues, but that has to be pushed aside once she sits down at the communications desk. Britton brings strength and compassion to every scene, whether it be taking a small child to safety during a home invasion robbery or handling her mother.
As for the world they work in, there are always variations on the emergency themes. But when the gimmicks of what caused the 9-1-1 call are stripped away, the teams are responding in the same way crews have from “Adam 12” to “Chicago Fire.” The writers do crank up the weirdness in the opening episode, including an emergency call about a newborn baby in danger that comes very close to the absurd.
But, a steady dose of standard car crashes or robbery attempts would not keep the attention of an audience who has other choices in the genre on other channels. One thing is certain, with Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) as one of the executive producers, always be ready for a different take on the traditional.
The three starring actors are reason enough for the series to survive, but the structure keeps it from reaching its full potential. The weakness of “9-1-1”is the three main stars are involved with different aspects of an event. While Bassett and Krause can end up in a scene together, Britton will always be on the outside looking in. Not having her directly in the mix with the other two actors — through more than just a telephone call — will always result in a story that falls short of its full potential. In this case, even coming up short is enough to make “9-1-1” a good call.
Oliver Stark (“Into The Badlands”), Aisha Hinds (“Shots Fired”), Kenneth Choi (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) and Rockmond Dunbar (“Prison Break”) also star.