“What’s your emergency?” asks Abby Clark (Connie Britton) in voiceover, pouring white wine into a glass. It is morning. “You’re looking at mine right now,” she continues with a sardonic edge. A 911 operator, Abby describes her life — a mother with Alzheimer’s, a failed relationship and a job that drains her — with detached, clinical disappointment, as if she’s observing a stranger’s life.
For “9-1-1,” a new Fox drama that aims to tell the stories of first responders in Los Angeles, this is a good start: A character who feels more about the crises on the other end of the line than she does in her own life. There’s a striking moment during her first emergency call of the day where — as usual — the caller hangs up on her when the ambulance gets there, leaving Abby to wonder, once again, what the fate of those panicked people was.
In the past, Britton has played warm, talkative women; as Abby, she’s a much more internal character, which is an exciting, against-type possibility. Before the audience can get more intrigued about her, Abby’s monologue continues — she asks a rhetorical question so baldly on the nose that it distances her instead of revealing more: “Is it weird that I feel more comfortable dealing with these kinds of emergencies than the one I have to deal with when I leave work and go home?”
And suddenly it seems as if “9-1-1” has played its whole hand with Abby, getting to the core of her internal struggle in just a sentence. Yet there’s more than 40 minutes of the pilot left to go, and presumably dozens of episodes to follow. There are a lot of ways to dramatize an internal conflict like that — like the alcohol dependence demonstrated in the first scene. “9-1-1,” throughout, opts for telling, not showing; even when it does both, the show is more comfortable when an implication is immediately made explicit.
It’s an approach that succeeds in some areas. “9-1-1,” from showrunner Ryan Murphy and longtime collaborators Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear, has a characteristic streak of acerbic humor that comes out in unexpected moments. When Bobby (Peter Krause), a firefighter recovering from addiction, goes to confession to ease his conscience, the new priest’s phone starts ringing — blasting Katy Perry’s “Firework” in the confessional. Later, when Bobby admonishes his gung-ho new recruit Buck (Oliver Stark) to not go all Rambo on their next call, the kid asks with confusion: “Who’s Rambo?”
But the emphasis on snap over story trips up the pilot. There’s a surprising lack of narrative coherence from the beginning of the hour to the end; two major emergencies and several minor ones are scattered through the episode with no real connection to one another. Only young firefighter Buck has an arc, and that’s because he starts the episode by being such a little snot that he has to mature or get kicked off the team. In lieu of arcs, “9-1-1” zigzags between characters.
The leads — Abby, Bobby and Athena (Angela Bassett) — have only passing familiarity with each other, in their three different fields — operator, firefighter and LAPD officer.This is a shame, if only because Britton, Krause and Bassett are all actors who could devastate an audience with a little more latitude. But each, in the first episode, is siloed in their own universe: Britton’s stuck working a keyboard, Bassett is struggling to come to terms with a husband who is coming out of the closet and Krause — well, Krause’s phoning it in.
As a result of the disjointed nature of the individual calls and the individual stories, the pilot episode has a jigsaw nature to it; with the exception of Buck, there’s no perceptible difference in context between the experience of one emergency and another. The most cogent storytelling in the pilot episode comes out of Bobby’s employees in the fire station. And though there’s a loving attention to how “9-1-1” frames its snarky, sexually frustrated firefighters, it’s hard to produce a relatable ensemble out of just one-third of a pilot episode; Aisha Hinds and Kenneth Choi, who both play memorable supporting roles, have about two shared scenes with which to make an impact.
For what it’s worth, the emergencies are inventive — in one, a baby is flushed down a toilet, making for a delicate, tense crisis; in another, a little girl calls 911 during a home invasion. But typically, in a law-and-order procedural, the one-off cases do less heavy lifting than the character work. “9-1-1” is certainly hipper and splashier than similar shows on other networks — like the successful “Chicago” franchise on NBC, from Dick Wolf, which tends to frame its story engines around sentimental character drama. What “9-1-1’s” story engine is remains to be seen.