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‘9-1-1’ Has the Shortest Attention Span of Any Show on TV, But It’s Paying Off

After squeezing more into one month of episodes than most shows do over their entire run, that unpredictability is what's keeping audiences around.

9-1-1: L-R: Angela Bassett, Connie Britton, Oliver Stark and Aisha Hinds in the all-new “Heartbreaker” episode of 9-1-1 airing Wednesday, Feb. 7 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. CR: FOX. © 2018 FOX Broadcasting.



One of the fashionable ways to describe “House” in its heyday was that it was more of a detective show than a doctor show, with House himself being a Sherlock Holmes, MD. Fast forward a decade and Fox’s new network TV challenger “911” is a similar Trojan horse.

It’s a kaleidoscope of a TV show that manages to squeeze in so much that it’s hard to believe that “911” has already showcased a baby in a pipe, a plane crash evacuation, a bouncy house flight, a roller coaster disaster, a dangling pervy window-washer, and a car crash that left a stake of rebar poked through a dude’s skull. And all in about a month. We’ve seen shows like this before, that vary wildly from week to week and set its audience up for an anything-can-happen approach. But through this three-thread narrative, “911” has managed to give audiences three shows for the time investment of one, a perfect hit for a TV-watching populace with a shrinking attention span.

Billed as a multilayered story about saving people from increasingly unbelievable tragedies, squint hard enough and the show essentially turns LA into one big hospital. The EMTs and first responders are giving CPR, sure, but they’re also crisis therapists, split-second problem solvers, and all subject to that classic trope of physicians unable to heal (or, in this case, save) themselves. The result is Fox’s biggest ratings success story of the season.

In its early going, even the locations of this show keep it on literal unpredictable ground. The Los Angeles of “911” doesn’t feel confined to a single preconceived notion of what the city is like, it just happily glides through all of them. It’s not restricted to sunny beaches or a cramped downtown or a lavish, Beverly Hills-style look at the city’s more famous side. It’s a malleable approach the city that can be everywhere and nowhere all at once. These EMTs and police officers don’t have a beat because the show doesn’t need them to. When you’re hopping around this much, scaling skyscrapers and the high end of an upside-loop at Generic Magic Mountain, it’s not surprising that viewers would want to tune in for whatever far-flung LA oddity would be in the mix on any given week.

In ideas and execution, “911” is designed like a TV defibrillator, meant to jolt people from the familiar rhythms underneath by the flashiest, most exotic predicaments for its characters to handle. Connecting the emotional dots between these individuals, making these workplace conversations feel like normal human speak, or getting at the finer points of small talk after hooking up with your therapist is not the show’s strong suit.

9-1-1: Passengers try to survive a crash in the "Worst Day Ever” episode of 9-1-1 airing Wednesday, Jan. 24 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. CR: Jack Zeman / FOX. © 2018 FOX Broadcasting.



But another reason why this show might be landing with viewers is that this ensemble is not treating the show like a flight of fancy. Krause is adding real pathos to Bobby, not just relying on his character’s tragic past or history with addiction to be compelling. Before taking a spike to the noggin, Kenneth Choi was shaping up to be a welcome regular contributing cast member, even as his character (nicknamed “Chimney”) was built on a series of facades. And Aisha Hines is already building up one of the most compelling performances on TV out of a character whose biggest role — up until last week — was reacting to other people.

The premise of the show is that these people are thrust into increasingly desperate situations that threaten to strip away everything that led them to that point. So if the characters seem like reflections just of their immediate circumstances (whether by design or by laziness), that totally works in the show’s favor. Yes, the show is treading on the same TV procedural ground that many other cop shows and firefighters shows and doctor shows and lawyer shows have been so dutiful about before. And with Bobby starting to open up about his troubled family history, maybe some of that will stick going forward. But because “911” is drawn so big, with the counterbalance of performances that are going for something much more honest, the show can have its cake, eat it too and send it crashing through three floors of a poorly constructed wedding venue.

In the process, “911” unleashes one-off characters like the water from the fire house that blew a motorcycle burglar clean off his bike. There’s the jerk from first class in the airplane water landing who gets his gut ripped off his body by his seatbelt, the guy who gets roundhouse kicked off a ledge to keep him from jumping to his death, the poor dad who plummets from that bouncy house as it soars over the San Fernando Valley, the woman who wastes no time in between being rescued from a deadly constrictor and immediately wanting to jump an EMT’s bones. Aside from the family member of one person this team couldn’t save, all those are quickly tossed aside in favor for the fodder for the next horrible set of circumstances. It’s all part of constant churn that keeps viewers from getting too complacent. And somehow, it all works.

Each week brings a brand new slate for the show to work on. But rather than keep “911” in the same arena week after week to chart the changes in how these characters react to them, it’s widening its scope at a surely unsustainable rate. The possible heir apparent to “Zoo,” network TV’s previous Weird Show Royalty, “911” is just tethered to a recognizable version of emergence response work that hasn’t yet tipped into outright lunacy. (If Connie Britton starts demanding to know about sloths or lamenting her cheating sister, we’ll know.)

That’s part of the appeal, though, to see what flavor of urgent disaster gets thrown at this core of intrepid risk-takers. Five episodes in, the show is actively trying to buck the convention of what a “911” episode looks like. The “Worst Day Ever” plane crash setpiece/excuse for Angela Bassett to drag the entire airline industry played with a non-linear timeline connecting its characters. Last week’s “Point of Origin” began to do some of the slower, character-focused stories that the opening batch had largely avoided (aside from Britton’s family-minded 9-1-1 operator Abby). Mostly, so far, “911” has thrived on being the most unpredictable new show on TV. Who knows how long it can keep up this pace, but it’s hard not to imagine viewers will stick around as long as it’s trying.

“9-1-1” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.

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