Why Fox's '9-1-1' Isn't Your Typical TV Procedural
By Philiana Ng
Fox’s 9-1-1 is throwing out the rulebook.
On paper, Ryan Murphy’s newest show has all the ingredients of the tried-and-true formula of a television procedural following the Los Angeles police force, firefighters, dispatchers and first responders. Only after watching the first few minutes do you realize it’s anything but that.
Led by an A-list trifecta with Angela Bassett, Peter Krause and Connie Britton,9-1-1 puts a twist on the classic procedural trope, structuring its stories in a way where viewers follow the relatively separate worlds in which each lead character lives -- Bassett as Detective Athena Grant, Krause as Fire Captain Bobby Nash and Britton as 911 operator Abby Clark -- with the occasional group interaction sprinkled in as the tale necessitates. As executive producer Brad Falchuk, Murphy’s longtime collaborator, tells it, the show’s unique format was the selling point.
“Audiences have become very sophisticated -- the cable audience certainly has -- and there’s no reason a network audience can’t as well. We’re enjoying telling stories that way because it’s just different. It’s a little more challenging for the brain,” Falchuk told ET following a December screening of the first episode on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. “There’s so much television now and people are so familiar with the format that even a young kid can say, ‘I know what’s going to happen,’ because they’re used to the cadence of it. It’s like music. What if we play the music a little bit differently here and maybe that’ll put people off-guard long enough that they don’t quite follow what’s going to happen.”
“What’s exciting is that now, there’s room in network TV to not necessarily do the typical rules where you say, ‘We’re going to do an episode all about this person. We’re going to do an episode where this person’s not really in it. We’re going to do an episode where these two people are in it together.’ We don’t think about it in terms of those rules,” he added, noting that “everybody will” share significant screen time as 9-1-1 evolves. “We want to service everyone because they’re all so great, but there’s a fun way to do it that’s different.”
The first episode of 9-1-1 sets the table for the intense, fast-paced and provocative nature the show intends to take on: In it, the first responders rescue a baby in a pipe (an idea the producers had before they landed on what the show would be), help a woman with a boa constrictor strangling her and respond to a home burglary-turned-hostage situation, for example. The second episode revolves around a nightmare accident on a roller coaster. All of the rescue ops featured on the show, Falchuk noted, are inspired by real-life stories and often involve consultation with former cops, firefighters and first responders.
“You can be as shocking as you want, as long as you’re believable [and] the most believable ones are ones that actually happened,” Falchuk said, referencing the baby rescue storyline as one that actually took place. “What we’ve been trying to do is trying to find stuff like that. That’s the hardest part.”
Another element that puts 9-1-1 above the rest is its stellar ensemble, welcome Bassett (American Horror Story: Coven, Freak Show, Hotel and Roanoke) and Britton (AHS: Murder House, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) back into the fold and introducing Krause into the Ryan Murphy world. It’s a role that’s unexpected for Krause, who is best known for playing a family man with a moral conscience (see: Parenthood). As Bobby, a fire captain who once upon a time had a drinking problem and was addicted to painkillers, the 52-year-old TV vet steps outside the box.
“Peter has an old-fashioned Gary Cooper/Jimmy Stewart/Hollywood movie star feel to him,” said executive producer Tim Minear of why Krause was a surprising fit, calling him a “bona fide TV star.” “That’s the hardest role to cast because those guys are few and far between, and when they have it, they have it -- and Peter definitely has it. It just made sense. You can put him into a role that’s very Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, and when you start peeling back the layers and you discover there’s some darkness underneath, it becomes all the more interesting.”
Bassett’s entrance is just as memorable. The moment comes well into the first episode and the image of Bassett, 59, in a cop uniform pulling off her shades as she arrives to the scene of a crime is remarkable and spine-tingling. “We’ve worked with her so much and what she does well, there’s a way you can write for her where she can do the things that’s easy for her,” Falchuk said. “Instead, let’s find a way to twist it to have her shine even a little bit more.”
But don’t count on the producers leaning into the political, social and cultural ripples of a powerful female character in an authority position on the police force, or commenting directly on it. “Inevitably right now, if you have a strong, powerful woman who’s in charge, that’s a political statement, which is a weird thing, but that’s what’s happening. That’s what we’re saying about it without making a comment on it,” Falchuk said of Bassett’s “badass” Detective Grant. “In the first few [episodes], we don’t hit on it head on.”
At the end of the day, Falchuk hopes viewers get invested in the often stressful, sometimes strange and never dull lives that three very capable first responders lead and the personal struggles they hide when they’re not in uniform. And yes, the victims they tend during those emergencies will become personal.
“Everybody is great at their jobs and terrible at home, or have problems at home that they struggle with. The problem of moments they can do, the problem of multiple moments is what they have a hard time with,” Falchuk said. “What happens when something happens to somebody you care about? That’s going to come down the line. There’s one rule we had, which you see in the pilot: They don’t go past the emergency room doors. What happens when you do have to go inside and what’s inside is what’s important?”
9-1-1 premieres Wednesday, Jan. 3 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.