State of More Emergencies: ‘9-1-1’/’Lone Star’ Creative Chiefs on the Power of Scheduling, the Franchise’s Future and a Potential Third Series
Before launching “9-1-1” with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk as a Fox midseason drama in January 2018, Tim Minear was a prolific producer with many impressive TV credits under his belt. Minear, who has the longest-running overall deal at “9-1-1” studio 20th Television, is best known for his work on “Angel,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse,” “American Horror Story,” “Terriers,” “Feud,” “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and “Wonderfalls.” But of those shows, the ones he personally created are best known for being very short-lived. Case in point: ever the self-aware-dark-humorist, Minear’s now-deactivated Twitter handle used to be @CancelledAgain.
“For the longest time, it was always like, what’s the hit network show?” Minear, who is “9-1-1” and spinoff “9-1-1: Lone Star” co-showrunner, told Variety. “That’s what the studio wants me to do, they want me to come up with a hit network show, and all I wanted to do was weird little cable things. And now I’ve got two hit network shows. But I don’t think anything I’m doing now is any different from what I did 20 years ago.”
“9-1-1” follows LAPD field sergeant Athena Grant (Angela Bassett), Chief Bobby Nash (Peter Krause) and the LAFD’s Station 118 team, plus 9-1-1 call center operator Maddie Kendall (Jennifer Love Hewitt), and the off-the-rails emergencies they face in their professional and personal lives. “9-1-1: Lone Star,” which premiered in January 2020, is centered on Captain Owen Strand (Rob Lowe) and Captain Tommy Vega (Gina Torres) and their crew at Station 126 in Austin, Texas.
“We don’t approach these things any different than we approached ‘Angel’ or ‘Firefly’ or ‘Wonderfalls’ or any of that stuff,” Minear said. “It’s an hour of a show, it’s about found family and emotion. And I think maybe the reason it’s more successful is that it’s about things people understand — heroes, firefighters, first responders — as opposed to, I don’t know, talking souvenirs in Niagara Falls? Which maybe has a slightly higher barrier to entry for an audience.”
“Also, it helps when the network doesn’t cancel you and air the episodes out of order,” he added, a playful jab at the old Fox regime for the constant “Firefly” scheduling shuffle that led to its premature end in 2003.
Fox has learned its lesson since Minear’s “Firefly” days, and “9-1-1” and “Lone Star” episodes are handled with care. The shows will start airing back-to-back again on Mondays with the March 21 return of “9-1-1” Season 5 from winter hiatus. “9-1-1” will take its 8 p.m. time slot from Season 3 of “Lone Star,” which will shift to 9 p.m. and make its switch with an eagerly anticipated “9-1-1” crossover plot including Bassett’s character.
“9-1-1” and “Lone Star” will be paired for the rest of the broadcast season, a match made in ratings heaven for the network — which considers the “9-1-1” universe its “premier franchise” and “one of the gold standards in all of television,” per Michael Thorn, president of entertainment at Fox Entertainment.
“So far, it feels like this franchise can go the distance like a ‘Grey’s’ or a ‘Law & Order’ or something in that wheelhouse,” Thorn said. “That’s our hope and belief in what this team has done with these shows.”
Minear, “9-1-1” co-showrunner Kristen Reidel and “Lone Star” co-showrunner Rashad Raisani, stars Bassett and Lowe, along with Thorn, talked to Variety about reuniting on Mondays, the overall future of the franchise, a potential third spinoff and how the continued success of these broadcast shows are shaping the current TV landscape.
To date, “9-1-1” Season 5 is averaging a 1.4 rating among adults in the key 18-49 demo and 8.4 million viewers, per Nielsen’s Live + 7 data, which counts a week’s worth of delayed viewing. “Lone Star” isn’t too far behind the mothership with a 1.1 rating and 7.7 million. “9-1-1” is tied for the third-highest rated broadcast drama and “Lone Star” is at No. 9. When adding in 35 days of delayed viewing — which is becoming one of broadcasters’ favorite data points to boast about amid competition with streaming — “9-1-1” was the top entertainment series of the fall. So it’s pretty much a guarantee that leading “9-1-1” into “Lone Star” this spring will boost both shows’ already strong numbers.
“Obviously, they work so well together as part of the same franchise,” Thorn said. “They are our two biggest scripted shows, period. So the idea of at least for part of every season, having them together on the same night is one of our goals.”
Fox has made that happen a few times since “Lone Star” premiered, giving the “9-1-1” fandom a similar block of programming and regular crossover content that is enjoyed by viewers of CBS’ “FBI” franchise, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19,” and NBC’s “Law & Order” and “Chicago” shows. However, it’s not something the network nor the “9-1-1” creative team sees as a realistic pairing for the whole TV season.
“Because these shows are so ambitious in their storytelling, they’re not always able to be shot at the same time, and therefore programed at the same time,” Thorn said. “So when we can make them work as a combined powerhouse night, we will absolutely program it that way and lean into it. It makes a signature night for us on Fox.”
For Minear, his preference is this year’s plan of 10 episodes of “9-1-1” in the fall followed by 10 episodes of “Lone Star” in the same slot at midseason, then airing them together for their back eight. “It allows us to be on the air more weeks out of the year if they’re not back to back,” Minear said, adding, “And quite frankly, I just don’t want to die.”
To keep Minear alive and working, “9-1-1” elevated Reidel to co-showrunner alongside Minear in Season 4, and upped Raisani to the same role on “Lone Star” for its second season. With Reidel and Raisani helping juggle things, Minear is “still right at the edge of exhaustion and expiring,” but he trusts Reidel to keep steering the first ship while he focuses more on the day-to-day of the younger show, which last winter featured a large-scale wildfire disaster crossover episode with “9-1-1.”
According to Raisani, “On ‘Lone Star,’ the onus has always been on us a little bit more, because we are the second child, we are not the original franchise, to kind of try as we might to stay out of ‘9-1-1’s’ lane — which is really hard when you have three or four emergencies every week.”
“On our show, because we feel the urge to try and stay out of the way a little bit more, we have a designated writer on staff whose job it is to literally raise her hand in the room and say, ‘No, you can’t do that. “9-1-1″ already shot it and they’re three episodes ahead of us,’ so there’s no argument,” he said.
Unfortunately, oversights happen, and a favorite of the showrunners’ is the time “9-1-1” and “Lone Star” both featured an emergency in which “something fell out of an airplane” on the same night.
“At least three times a season, I say we’re done. That’s it. That’s all the cases, we have none left,” Reidel said. “And then somebody does something crazy and it ends up on the internet and oh, there’s another! But it does get hard.”
The silver lining here is the shows’ ability to “cross-pollinate each other,” per Raisani. “It’s happened multiple times, where a storyline started on ‘9-1-1’ and then either they didn’t need it or it went a different way,” he said. “And then we’ll gladly take it sometimes for ‘Lone Star.'”
Minear added: “Kristen was going to do a serial arsonist on ‘9-1-1’ last year, and then decided not to, and then I immediately snagged it and pulled it over into the other show. And I actually think it worked probably better on ‘Lone Star’ than it would have on ‘9-1-1’. Then last year, Rashad had been talking about a hacker attack that shut down the infrastructure, and to his surprise, we ended up doing that on ‘9-1-1’ this year.”‘
“American Horror Story” and “Black Panther” star Bassett and “West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation” alum Lowe have been at the top of the “9-1-1” and “Lone Star” call sheets since the shows debuted, though each one has lost a co-lead along the way: Connie Britton, who played emergency call operator Abby Clark on the first season of “9-1-1,” and Liv Tyler, who starred alongside Lowe as EMS captain Michelle Blake for the premiere year of “Lone Star.”
Those two exits are said to have been due to an established single-season commitment for Britton (who has since returned as a guest star) and scheduling challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic for Tyler, per producers. Apart from those departures, and the recent firing of “9-1-1” actor Rockmond Dunbar over disputes regarding vaccine mandates by 20th Television, the original casts are largely intact and have grown to include stars like Hewitt and Torres.
For Lowe and Bassett, though, the Murphy shows — which count Lowe as an executive producer on “Lone Star” and Bassett as an EP on both “9-1-1” and its spinoff — have offered them chances to reshape a genre from Day 1.
“Ryan Murphy and I have been trying to do something since ‘Nip/Tuck,’ which he wrote for me and my agents never gave to me, which is a great substory. So that relationship was long overdue,” Lowe said. “When I realized Tim Minear and Brad Falchuk would be really running the show and designing this character, for me, it was the right thing to do because it’s the type of procedural that I like best, which is a character show dressed up as a procedural.”
Bassett loves the “wonderful mix” of “characters, interpersonal dynamics and theatrics,” plus “the Murphy world always has tongue in cheek, too.”
“I’m amazed week to week, episode to episode what they come up with, what they find, what’s crazy in the world that they put on our plate to do,” Bassett said. “But for me, that’s the question when you ask, ‘Do you see this going on for 20 years? Is there that much crazy in the world that it could sustain us?’ Oh, that remains to be seen. I’m very curious, and I’m sure the fans are as well.”
Lowe teases that the upcoming Season 3 finale for “Lone Star” is “fucking nuts,” by the way.
“These shows are the canaries in the coal mine,” he said. “If you really want to know what the future of network television is going to be in this era of streaming, pay attention to what happens with these two shows and that will tell you everything you need to know.”
According to Thorn, Fox is proud of Murphy’s “9-1-1” and “Lone Star” for “celebrating unique, diverse characters” with LGBTQ and minority inclusion both in front of the camera and behind the scenes which “is a priority for Ryan, Tim, Brad and Fox and 20th.”
The “9-1-1” universe is made up of “9-1-1” characters played by series regulars Bassett, Krause, Hewitt, Oliver Stark, Aisha Hinds, Kenneth Choi, Ryan Guzman and Corinne Massiah, and “Lone Star” roles are filled by staples Lowe, Torres, Ronen Rubinstein, Sierra McClain, Jim Parrack, Natacha Karam, Brian Michael Smith, Rafael Silva and Julian Works. Storylines for specific sets of those characters have been known to elicit passionate and often negative reactions online: the close friendship between Stark’s Evan “Buck” Buckley and Guzman’s Eddie Diaz on “9-1-1,” which some fans have accused of being “queer-baiting,” and the tumultuous relationship between Rubinstein’s T.K. Strand and Silva’s Carlos Reyes on “Lone Star,” that has upset fans of the gay couple who want to see them stabilized and at the center of most episodes.
“I actually just went ahead and deleted my Twitter account, because I just can’t hear it,” Minear said. “It’s not good for a writer to be reading that stuff, to be honest. I’m sure that’s not going to help me make a lot of fans. But I’ll read stuff on Twitter like, ‘Why can’t Carlos be in this episode?’ And people don’t understand. First of all, I don’t own that particular actor for every episode produced. So he has to be absent from a certain amount of episodes.
“What I don’t want to do is, for instance, take somebody like Rafael and put him in a scene where he’s directing traffic and eat up a whole Carlos episode. I’m going to wait until I have a story for him. I’m not going to waste an episode on him if there’s not something for him to do. There are other characters on the show that I have for every episode. But one of the reasons I deleted my Twitter account is because I want to respond to all this stuff and you can’t be doing it.”
Raisani, who notes Minear “definitely wants to respond to everything,” has also chosen to stay away from social media.
“There’s a certain contingent, from what I understand, of the fanbase are, and God bless them, intensely devoted to one tiny segment of the show,” Raisani said. “And for us, it is truly an ensemble and they’re all a family. I don’t want to lose that sense of feeling like these people are our family and real people. And the more we get into the Twitter wars, the more it reminds me that, oh yeah, this is just a TV show.”
Minear has a hard time reconciling the fact people “who are passionately devoted to the characters” are “angry at us, the people who created these characters and made them available to them, because they want the story to go a certain way.” His suggestion: Go write some fan fiction.
“And I think they should write a bunch of it! Because what I see on Twitter sometimes is, ‘Why do bad things have to happen to these characters? Why can’t they just be happy?’ And what I don’t think the fans understand is what they are asking for, in that instance, is for their favorite characters to not be on screen,” Minear said. “Because if they’re just sitting around being happy and saying, ‘Pass the salt,’ we’re not going to put them on the show because that’s not a story. Every moment of screen time is valuable real estate to us. We’re talking about telling a story with guest characters, regular characters, emergencies and personal stories in 43 minutes. And on each one of these shows, you have like nine or 10 regular and recurring characters that you have to service. If an audience member is angry that the character that they came in to see isn’t in that episode, they can’t all be in every episode, or at least have a fulsome story in every episode.”
This is why Minear has long used the origin story format on “9-1-1” with “[Character Name] Begins” titles, and a similar style for certain episodes of “Lone Star,” that dive into one person at a time, along with several other spotlight episodes for the characters.
The producers are equally at a loss for what to say to fans when it comes to the queer-baiting accusations on the friendship between heterosexual male characters Buck and Eddie, which the writers maintain does not have romantic undertones and is not leading on fans who “ship” the two as a couple.
The situation is “a little strange” for Reidel, who came up through the fan-fiction world on her way to a TV writing career. “So I understand fans and I understand shipping and watching episodes multiple times and seeing clues that aren’t necessarily clues. The only thing I can say is, we make the show without any intention of queer-baiting, but what we write and film and edit together, once it leaves us, it goes out into the world and then the fans are going to interpret that. And I think sometimes they interpret things as signs or signals that we did not intend for them to be.”
Reidel admits there have “been a couple of times where we made a little joke” about Buck and Eddie’s close friendship, “but that’s been the extent of it.” “With regard to the queer-baiting, I don’t actually know what to say on it because with Buck and Eddie, they have great chemistry and some people want to see them together. And it kind of seems like, if they’re in scenes together, we’re queer-baiting, if they’re not in scenes together, we’re queer-baiting. I am not really sure what to do there. But I will say it’s never our intention to queer-bait. But I can’t say, ‘You’re watching it wrong!'”
Minear says “half the time” he doesn’t understand the accusations, as he’s been “accused of queer-baiting with Carlos and T.K., and they’re actually a queer couple.”
“What I get from fans is, ‘You did something that made them unhappy!’ or ‘You put T.K. in jeopardy, and you can’t because they’re gay,'” Minear said. “And as far as I’m concerned, every one of these characters is in just as much emotional and physical jeopardy, and they’re just as fallible and human as the next character. And I can’t make my gay characters superhuman. That’s not interesting. Plus, I don’t know any superhuman gays, except for Ryan Murphy.”
Taking on More Shifts
By this point, it should be clear that “9-1-1” and “Lone Star” are priority series for Fox. So why haven’t the shows been renewed for Season 6 and Season 4, respectively, yet? Thorn says the network and studio are “in active discussions” regarding renewals ahead of broadcast TV upfront presentations to advertisers in May, the traditional time to announce new fall slates.
According to sources close to negotiations, there’s no chance they don’t work out, but it’s very possible they won’t wrap up until the last minute. With “9-1-1” heading into its sixth season, it’s facing a standard re-negotiation phase with talent.
Still, production is business as usual for all parties, and longevity is the name of the “9-1-1” game in Fox’s eyes.
“When you look at some of the long-running established procedurals or franchise shows that have been running for decades, it really showcases how, if the characters are compelling enough and their dynamics are engaging enough, that there will always be enough stories for, in this case, our firehouses,” Thorn said.
Minear, who has not yet ended a show on his own terms, doesn’t know that “9-1-1” and “Lone Star” necessarily have to end at all.
“We’re not doing ‘Breaking Bad,’ right?” Minear said. “‘Breaking Bad’ is like a Russian novel, it has a starting point and it has a natural terminus; whereas something like this, you could bring in new characters and kind of rejuvenate the cast, and as actors are ready to move on, you can end their stories, tragically or triumphantly. There are ways to cycle in new generations, as we’ve already proven.”
He added: “But I don’t see why it has to end. I mean, we can’t go on forever — but the shows could.”
Raisani and Reidel are with the “9-1-1” mastermind on this one.
“If you look at ‘Lone Star’ last year, we brought in a new fire captain who became our new female lead on the show, Gina Torres,” Raisani said. “And I think it happened rather seamlessly because of the machineries in place to allow new characters to step in and tell something fresh and interesting and specific. And then when that’s over, somebody else could step in, for sure. So I think it could go on for a long time.”
Reidel says five seasons in, the “9-1-1” writers enjoy making jokes that Season 12 would feature Athena’s son Harry and Hen Wilson’s (Hinds) son Denny joining the fire department as “9-1-1: The Next Generation.”
A New State of Emergency?
Murphy, who left his longtime home at 20th Television in 2018 for a five-year mega deal at Netflix that is now almost up, has been talking about expanding the “9-1-1” universe with a potential third series for years. The question is, where would it take place?
“About half of the emergencies that these shows are based on actually occurred in Florida,” Raisani said. “Florida, I think, is the main contributor. We might as well go to the source!”
Minear likes that idea, spitballing the title “9-1-1: Florida Man” to the group during the interview.
“I always thought Miami would be a great place for a ‘9-1-1,’ because it’s got a lot of the stuff that L.A. has: palm trees, blue sky, water,” Minear said. “Part of the thing that I think made ‘9-1-1’ so successful in its first couple of years was the juxtaposition of the insane emergencies against a city like L.A. that has a whole bunch of different cohorts — but it’s also the blue sky and the palm tree of it all that makes it fun. And I think you get that in Miami, too. And there’s all kinds of great communities there, plus, you have hurricanes and alligators.”
Fox would “love” to have a third “9-1-1,” Thorn says, “when the time is right” — and the programming schedule is, too. “I think our goal would be to overlap and tie the three together as consistently as we could,” Thorn said.
“Could a potential third series be the bridge in the beginning? Or is it paired with either ‘9-1-1’ or ‘Lone Star’? All of these opportunities are things we’re discussing,” Thorn said, noting that all three airing on the same night would unfortunately not be a possibility, as Fox does not programming nationally in the 10 o’clock hour.
In Minear’s mind, there’s no “real limit” to what they could do, based on what they have already pulled off: “the tsunami, the earthquake, the infrastructure attack, the dam breaking, those big Irwin Allen-esque disaster movies that we do.”
“I think there’s always room for other places, other iterations, different ways to kind of service the ‘9-1-1’ universe,” Minear said.
He then added, “I’m sure it could be arranged, just depends how much they want to pay me.”