It takes only the opening minutes of “9-1-1”—their everyday tone, their mere flash of a look at lives touched by unhappy reality (unhappy but not unusual)—to suggest rich drama afoot. Here’s a woman in her early 40s still upset, a year later, over being ditched by her boyfriend—a woman torn by sorrow for her mother, an Alzheimer’s victim, and by worry for the people whose emergency calls she fields at a 911 call center in Los Angeles. In short, an introduction oozing with potential for the sodden and the shopworn—which, despite its subject, “9-1-1” is decidedly not.
Begins Wednesday, 9 p.m., on Fox
the call-center operator, is portrayed by
of “Friday Night Lights” fame, and her afflicted but mordantly observant mother by
—two good reasons for the promise of that early scene. There will be more of that immediately after, when the first responders go into action, under the leadership of
a deceptively informal name for the chief. He’s played by
(“Six Feet Under”), who has lost none of his capacity for exuding untouchable authority and profound vulnerability at the same time, all seasoned by an embracing sympathy. To behold Bobby trying to talk a would-be jumper off a very high bridge is to feel the powers of sympathy
wields as an actor.
All the more reason to appreciate the complexity his character adds to the series. After troubles of his own as an alcoholic and all-around dropout for several years, Bobby goes to confession regularly as a reminder of that past, as he explains to a young priest who looks, despite the collar he wears, far more like someone in need of absolution than the man before him, radiating calm assurance. Which doesn’t mean that Bobby controls his temper. He’s a dynamo of unforgiving fury at any dereliction of duty by his first-responders team, as Buck (
), an eager new member, learns when he’s found joyfully connecting with every sexy-enough female he meets in the line of duty—couplings that take place everywhere, including the firetruck.
Here we note a neon-lit nod to current events as an earnest Bobby delivers a scathing rebuke on the subject of Buck’s disrespect for women on the job—a standout moment, and not the best kind, in a script that’s otherwise impressively free of the clangy artifice presented as conversation in TV workplace dramas.
That relative absence of artifice makes a powerhouse of scenes whose delicate subjects are prime candidates for muddling: the kind that involve Detective
of the LAPD (
), whose domestic life includes a husband, Michael (Rockmond
), who isn’t the heterosexual male the couple’s children thought he was. It leads to a ferocious encounter, gloves off, bitter in its passions—immensely effective drama in all.
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There are, true, few scenes in this pilot episode (writers
and Tim Minear) about which you couldn’t say much the same. A series about 911 responders comes with built-in advantages in the drama department. Even so, there’s no missing the exceptional depth of detail, the emotional range and enterprise that undergird standard events—trying, for instance, to breathe life back into a swimmer knocked unconscious—and make them affecting. That’s in addition to the fearful suspense that attaches, along with wild hope, to every effort at rescue—not all of them succeed—and it’s a crucial addition.
There are ventures, involving an infant who may or may not be trapped in the most improbable of places, that broaden into epic battles that feel like mini-films in themselves in their complexity and chaotic busyness, all against a background of a large, downscale apartment house where a furiously compelling Detective
is searching hallways and kicking doors in.
Future episodes concern emergencies like a roller-coaster malfunction, a windstorm at a children’s birthday party, a plane crash in the Pacific—all likely to be adventures in terror worth waiting for.