From a dramedy driven by musical numbers to a seasonal horror anthology to a revival of the miniseries with modern sensibility, Ryan Murphy’s edgy, zeitgeist-rich television career has thrived on the unexpected. Fewer things could be more unexpected than Murphy and his regular stable of co-creators and ensemble of actors taking on a procedural drama for broadcast television and that’s exactly what “9-1-1,” his latest series debuting on Fox in 2018, is.
The new show centers around a disparate and often disconnected series of first responders – a team of Los Angeles-based EMTs, a police patrol officer and a 9-1-1 operator – as they contend with a ceaseless string of urgent, out-of-the-blue life-and-death emergencies, and have an even more difficult time grappling with their own personal dramas away from their laser-focus at work. The cast is headlined by regular Murphy players Angela Bassett and Connie Britton, along with TV veteran but Murphyverse newcomer Peter Krause.
“The idea was everybody there is great at their jobs and have problems at home that they struggle with,” says executive producer and co-creator Brad Falchuk, who has collaborated with Murphy on “Glee,” “ Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story.”
Though the emergencies depicted on the show may often be visually and emotionally captivating scenes from a production point of view, they will also be events that further shine lights on the characters. Per Falchuk, the real focus of the show is “the difference of who they are when they can be totally in control and in uniform, and who they are when they can’t just arrest somebody, they can’t just figure the problem out.”
Falchuk says that the show will marry the venerable procedural genre that’s thrived over decades of television – from “Dragnet,” “Adam-12” and “Emergency” to “CSI,” “Law & Order” and “Chicago Fire” – with Murphy’s penchant for “ingenious innovation,” something the producers are confident will fit as successfully on broad-appeal broadcast as his quirkier fare has thrived on cabler FX.
“I think audiences have become very sophisticated – the cable audience certainly have, and there’s no reason why a network audience can’t as well,” says Falchuk, who says the format of the series will occasionally bend and twist in a less linear storytelling style than what usually characterizes procedurals. He compares their format for “9-1-1,” which will “screw around with time, tell big chunks of story here and there, and make sure you have some cases thrown in the middle” to how “Glee” used to have “musical numbers somewhere in there to liven up” the rest of the story.
Executive producer and co-creator Tim Minear, who has worked with Murphy on “American Horror Story” and “Feud,” says the production team was energized by the opportunity to work on the more accessible canvas.
“Mostly we had been toiling away at FX and working on these cable shows, and Ryan wanted to do something that was fun and accessible but emotional for network television, and it’s tried and true: first responders, people who rush into danger,” Minear says. “I don’t like to call this a procedural, because I don’t think it is – it’s a first responder show, which means, bursts, vignettes, almost like one viral video after another of incidents. We’re trying not to do something completely straightforward. We want to do the fun, soapy stuff that we do, but also something in bolder, more primary colors.”
The pilot features a series of crises that feel both exotic and ripped from real life – including a newborn trapped in the plumbing of an apartment building and a snake fancier at the mercy of her pet python – adding to the series’ heightened tone.
“We really are leaning into the zeitgeist of social media,” says Minear. “I use the term ‘viral video’ – that’s what I tell my staff to think of, in terms of coming up with some of these set piece sequences. That it’s not just a rescue, or just something that you would see on TV, but it’s the kind of thing that people go to YouTube and they can’t get enough of.”
“You can be as shocking as you want, as long as it’s believable, and the most believable ones are ones that actually happened, obviously,” adds Falchuk. “It has to be stuff like this, where there’s stuff to do, it’s crazy, it’s unbelievable, there’s a visual part of it that’s incredible, and it actually happens.”
Falchuk also admits his team is flexing a set creative muscles they haven’t engaged before, which he calls the hardest part: “Telling stories is a piece of cake, but finding really cool, weird stuff, is a little trickier.”
But beyond these flashy, often standalone incidents are the constants of the characters the show follows. 9-1-1 operator Abby Clark (Britton) is a woman who at work often finds her telephonic life-saving efforts abruptly cut off when EMTs arrive on the scene and at home lovingly and guiltily cares for her mentally failing mother; Athena Grant (Bassett) is an intimidating patrol officer with a recently revealed secret that threatens to tear her family life apart; and EMT chief Bobby Nash (Krause) is determined to live up to the lofty demands of his job – and ensure that his occasionally undisciplined crewmembers (including Oliver Stark) do, too – after nearly derailing his life and career due to alcohol.
Executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall, another longtime member of the Murphy stable, says that she felt creatively engaged by the fresh simplicity of the premise, but that these characters are key, too.
“It is something that we all could potentially be going through. making that 911 call,” she says. “How do you make it both fun and exciting, but also authentic and honor both the victims and the first responders? I want to make sure that we can be emotionally accurate.”
The answer for Woodall was to spend time talking about the degrees of emergencies depicted within the show so that they lent themselves not only to plots but also character development. It is not just major, catastrophic events but daily occurrences that reflect the realism of the lives of the first responders.
“You have to realize that every single person that’s showing up to save our lives every day might need someone to save their life in a very different way,” Woodall says.
“9-1-1” premieres Jan. 3 at 9pm on Fox.