Years from now, when “911” is just a number people dial in anger after McDonald’s stiffs them three chicken nuggets in their happy meal, someone should sit down with Golden Globe nominee Peter Krause and ask him what it was like delivering the line, “You can’t punch it in the face, Buck — it’s a snake!” After all, it’s not every day the star of “Six Feet Under” and “Parenthood” would be asked to say something so ridiculous, let alone do so with the straight face and determined demeanor of a blue-blooded American hero.
Was that the moment he knew something was amiss in Ryan Murphy’s prestigious new procedural? Did it feel as strange to act in the scene as it is to watch it unfold? Did Krause and co-star Aisha Hinds exchange a look during the shoot, telepathically communicating, “We did great things once. You gave an unforgettable speech as Harriet Tubman. I faced death in order to grapple with the meaning of life. Now we’re playing firefighters who can spout stats about snakes’ ‘constriction strength’ off the top of our heads like we’re Steve Irwin. What happened?”
It’s a good question, and one that should be asked when there’s enough distance from the project to objectively examine exactly how and why all these things came together for such a magnificent clusterfuck. One could also ask Connie Britton, who may have felt similarly when her character hangs up on a 9-1-1 caller complaining about a lack of chicken nuggets with the line, “Eat your nuggets, get some perspective, and get the hell off my line”? For now, just remember this: Stories that are too good to be true typically don’t play well on television, and “911” is filled with stories that are so good they’re terrible.
Chronicling the craziest shit that’s ever happened to the LAPD and LAFD — I mean, presumably, since there’s a scene where a new recruit wants to save a choking woman by punching a snake in the face — the hourlong drama series from “Nip/Tuck” and “American Horror Story” creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk follows members of each unit as they receive and respond to emergency calls.
First, we meet Connie Britton’s Abby Clark, a 9-1-1 operator who says she’s more comfortable handling life-or-death calls than dealing with the day-to-day emergencies in her own life. Her mom’s Alzheimers and recent break-up are far more intimidating than a drowning kid or a suicidal jumper, and this attitude is reflected in the other characters as well. Angela Bassett’s hard-ass cop would rather have a guns-drawn standoff with a speeding motorcyclist than talk to her estranged husband, and Krause’s by-the-book fireman is better suited for fighting snakes than staying sober.
OK, that latter point isn’t exactly true. Bobby Nash (Krause) seems like he’s pretty good at everything. He’s the guy who has to keep himself in line or his repressed vices will drive him off the edge. Odds are the audience will never see him spin as far out of control as he informs us he used to be, but hey, we know those demons are there, thanks to some uncomfortably blunt exposition. (Bobby has to go to confession every week to help keep himself in line, providing quite the opportunity for him to expound on whatever needs expounding upon.)
All this personal drama does little to compare to what these men and women face on the job. Beyond the snakes — as if we even need to go beyond the snakes — the first episode alone finds kids taken hostage in “SpielbergLand” (as Bassett describes a suburban neighborhood of LA), a newborn baby trapped in the sewage pipes of an apartment building (!), and, what was it… there was one more thing… oh yeah, the goddamn 20-foot python slowly choking the life from its crimson-faced owner.
There are a lot of problems with “911,” including stunted dialogue, painful voiceover, and at least one willing embodiment of “all things wrong with millennials,” but the emergency stories are what push the pilot from engaging melodrama to laughable inanity. It’s not these stories have to be true or even based on truth. They just have to be believable, even if they’re “too good to be true.” Unlike when you’re communicating a wild tale to your friends, there’s no one in a TV show who can look you in the eye and say, “Yeah, that really happened!” Writers, directors, and actors have to create that emphasis on their own by grounding these stories within the narrative. You have to watch it, accept the extraordinary circumstances, and buy into it anyway. It’s why something as insanely out there as a sex-lion cult having an orgy on the ocean can become one of 2017’s most profound television experiences.
And it’s why the Fox procedural “911” is absolutely impossible to watch with a straight face, despite the earnest attempts of its A-list cast. Perhaps the pilot is knowingly streeeetching in order to stand out from all the other TV out there, and future episodes can bring things back down to earth. But there are too many mistakes in the first entry to think “911” will be anything but a funny memory come 2019 — hopefully one even Krause can chuckle over while reminiscing about that time he tried to wrestle a snake.
“9-1-1-” premieres Wednesday, January 3 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.