Wednesday, January 3, 2018

REVIEW: '9-1-1' - Abby, Athena and Bobby Work Together in Order to Save Lives in 'Pilot'

FOX's 9-1-1 - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Detective Athena Grant works as a member of the police force, handling cases that require her sharp mind and expertise, while also trying to juggle her own family drama. Bobby Nash and his team of firefighters help execute the daring rescues that often come along with these life-threatening situations. Abby Clark spends her days taking and fielding emergency calls at the 911 call center, but constantly desires to know what happens after she sends help.

I enjoy a good procedural. I'm still watching - and even reviewing - the various Chicago shows over on NBC. Fourteen years later, I'm still enjoying Grey's Anatomy. There's nothing wrong with this genre. It features a well-established formula that can be used to craft compelling stories. The good shows are able to thrive while the bad ones can stick around for much longer than they should. It's a genre that hasn't seen a ton of shakeup over the last few years. That's where Ryan Murphy and his partners come in with 9-1-1. Heading into this premiere, it felt destined that Murphy and company would be offering their spin on the procedural. A way to tell these familiar stories in new and surprising ways. And in the end, the premiere does feel like a Murphy production. It's glossy in the way his shows usually feel. It's over-the-top in places that embellish the ridiculous nature of the story. But it still fundamentally feels like a procedural. The true difference comes from the casting and the personal lives these veteran actors are able to play with their characters. This is probably the most overqualified cast for a procedural. The expectation is still there for it to be more than just the same formula every week. That excitement is fresh and compulsive. Now, it's just curious to see how it will all develop moving forward.

Of course, there are plenty of awkward beats in this premiere as well. It's a very expositional hour. It states its premise and then restates it over and over again. This is a show about first responders, the people who choose to head into danger every day despite the risks it puts on their own lives. They are more comfortable dealing with other people's tragedies than the ones going on in their own lives. The show really hits the audience over the head with this theme. It's told pretty blatantly in the actual story. But it is then emphasized even more with voiceover narration that opens and ends the episode. It almost feels like overkill. The show is making sure that the audience gets it. These are troubled individuals who are commanding and confident in their professional lives while really struggling in their personal ones. The premiere does split its time pretty evenly between the three leads. It does a fine job introducing their complicated lives. How they are important at work while struggle at home. It's just a little too commonplace as well. There really isn't a story here that is all that surprising or new. That's a little disappointing from a creative team that is known for being groundbreaking.

Viewers are first introduced to Connie Britton's Abby Clark. She works at a 911 call center. She's the person on the other end of the line who first picks up and responds to an emergency. She's the one who alerts the firefighters and police about the situation and where they need to go. Abby is very effective at her job but yearns to get more clarity and closure over what happens to the cases after the calls end. She frequently gets no resolution whatsoever. That actually becomes quite tragic because she returns home to a pretty depressing life. Her boyfriend broke up with her a year ago but she is still struggling to move on. But more importantly, she is caring for her mother who is suffer from Alzheimer's. That's tragic and it doesn't seem like she is getting the help she needs. But she is able to escape into her work and hope for the best when it comes to handling these complicated situations.

And then, there is Peter Krause's Bobby Nash, who is the captain of his firehouse. He's the one who leads his unit into the emergencies. He's an addict who confesses his sins every week in order to have perspective on the life he has lived and what he risks losing if he relapses. It's a part of a routine for him. It's clear that he has this perspective on the mistakes he made in his past. It's also clear that he's trying not to be a father figure to the new recruit to the unit, Buck. Buck seems to be exhibiting the same addiction problems that Bobby did. He is taking the fire truck out on the town in order to have sex with multiple women. He believes himself to be a sex addict. But he messes up one too many times and gets fired. Of course, that twist never actually feels like it's going to stick. The show wouldn't spend so much time on Buck in this premiere if he wasn't going to be a consistent feature in this world. Buck is just a character type who is way too formulaic and cliche - especially in this genre at the moment.

And finally, Angela Bassett plays Athena Grant, a commanding police officer. She's the authority figure who arrives quickly on the scene and is able to expertly adjust to the changing situation. All of this stands in contrast with her personal life. She's the one with an idyllic family. She is married with two children. Then comes the revelation that her husband is gay but they wish to remain married. That's complicated. The show hopes to add a new spin on this familiar story. It's being played as a healthy relationship for both of them. Athena feels betrayed by the truth about her husband, Michael, actually being out in the open now. He counters that she must have always known and didn't care because she desperately needed a family. They both are completely in love with their children and want to keep this family happy and functional. That could be a fascinating take on this situation. It leads to quite a moving moment where Athena calls home to make sure everyone is alright after a pretty intense situation at work. That's an effective moment that proves just how great Bassett is as an actress.

Ultimately though, this show is driven by the various emergencies that these characters embark on with their jobs. It's a show that introduces many different emergencies in the span of one hour. It doesn't linger on one for longer than ten minutes. These cases pop up and are the most important thing that they have to deal with. But it's not treated as an ongoing mystery. It's not a typical procedural case where something is introduced in the first few minutes and needs to be solved by the end of the hour. Instead, these are stories of life-or-death where quick decisions need to be made. This premiere highlights some of the more silly and ridiculous calls that these responders must deal with. It's gross and brutal to watch Bobby and his team slide a premature baby out of a pipe. It's over-the-top comedy seeing a woman being choked to death by her pet snake. But it's also incredible intense when the call involves a potential jumper or a home invasion. The closing sequence of this premiere is quite strong. It brings everything together in a way that keeps Buck on the job with a new perspective of what he has. But it's more solid to watch the role that Abby and Athena play in the outcome of this case. Abby has to be nurturing and calm on the phone. But she is also commanding when the situation requires her to step up to safe this young girl's life. That's such a powerful moment that gives Britton a lot to work with. It's surprising and should be encouraged more in the future as well. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk and directed by Bradley Buecker.
  • Bobby explains his backstory and his church-going routine to the priest who just happens to be new at the job. It's a little annoying and cumbersome. It's especially odd to see a priest with Katy Perry's "Firework" blasting as his ringtone. Plus, he doesn't provide any kind of reaction to Bobby's story. He's just listening in and getting caught up on what this dynamic will need to be for Bobby moving forward.
  • Abby's mom having Alzheimer's is tragic enough but seeing just how lame and uninspired her nurse is also becomes tragic. This girl just wants to be on her phone not really caring about the job because she can't lose it. If Abby complains, she'll just be assigned to a different case. But that's horrible because treating people like Abby's mom needs to be done with so much compassion and consideration.
  • The Grant children already seem incredibly annoying. That's going to be a major problem if this family drama is going to remain an important focus of the season. That seems likely because Rockmond Dunbar is a series regular as well. The story should just focus on Athena and Michael's relationship while leaving the children in the background to be discussed but not heard a whole lot.
  • Bobby's team also includes Kenneth Choi as Howie Han and Aisha Hinds as Henrietta Wilson. Neither of them really have a spotlight moment in this premiere. They are simply supporting characters without much dimension. That's unfortunate because they are actors who can sell strong material as well. But here, Han is complaining about his relationship while Henrietta arranges Buck to be in a useful position once more.
  • Athena is absolutely right to call Buck out for his pompous attitude regarding who should live and who should die. They are first responders who have to make difficult decisions in split seconds. He's self-righteous and protective of this baby while she cautions patience because they don't know the full story. Nor will they get any resolution to it. And then, it's mostly necessary for the two to team up in the end and succeed in saving this young girl's life while arresting the burglars.