Chicago’s combustible Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes a silent cameo in the premiere of “Chicago Fire,” and in hindsight, they should have let him speak, which might have helped elevate a series that seeks to marry firefighting to Calvin Klein ads. Beautiful paramedics are introduced, trucks careen through the streets, bodies glisten, and lives are saved. All told, it’s a long way from “Rescue Me’s” tortured, boozing post-Sept. 11 heroes, and despite featuring slickly executed action sequences (though nothing viewers couldn’t see on Universal’s “Backdraft” ride), “Fire” is almost as drab as a pile of ash.
Home base is Firehouse 51, where the gang works and plays hard. In a device seemingly intended to use visiting schoolchildren as surrogates for the audience (which is telling), a newbie firefighter (Charlie Barnett) explains the rules of admission to the Rescue Squad, a top-flight subdivision of the department, which takes only “the best of the best.”
Yet aside from representing the bravest and boldest, the mix of rescuers, firefighters and paramedics make for a nondescript bunch, so much so that the cast — with the exception of “Oz’s” Eamonn Walker as the crusty, literally battle-scarred captain — proves virtually interchangeable in the early going.
Granted, there’s some playful hazing and tension within the ranks, including a feud between firefighter Matthew Casey (“House’s” Jesse Spencer) and rescue-squad hothead Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney), stemming from events depicted during a pre-credit sequence. (Frankly, there haven’t been this many macho stares exchanged by muscular guys in tank tops since “Top Gun.”)
Then again, this Dick Wolf production (created by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas) could have been developed way back before “Law & Order” made its 1990 debut. Even the personal problems feel familiar, including one firefighter hooked on painkillers — which only brings to mind what a superior product NBC’s one-time drama “Southland” is, now patrolling TNT.
Nor can the accomplished guest stars who turn up in the second and third installments (Jeffrey DeMunn and Jason Beghe, respectively) do much more than marginally improve matters. As for the mayor, perhaps his brother can negotiate a better part for him, provided the series doesn’t go up in smoke.
By scheduling “Chicago Fire” at 10 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC has given the show a fighting chance opposite another newcomer, ABC’s “Nashville,” and a “CSI” doubtless past the growth phase in its life-cycle.
That said, for a network in need of appointment programming, NBC would appear hard-pressed to ignite a spark with a concept plucked straight out of CBS’ meat-and-potatoes profile. Because simply put, even for an escape-minded audience, it’s difficult to imagine this low-octane creative exercise being a good match.