It’s a new era for broadcaster Sky as Sky Living — the veteran channel that brought the UK gems like Ghost Whisperer and Grey’s Anatomy — evolves to become Sky Witness. The rebrand will bring with it plenty of new US crime-related imports, and the first is Ryan Murphy’s new drama 9-1-1. The procedural series follows the lives of Los Angeles’ first responders, including firefighters, cops, paramedics, and dispatchers. It promises to be big, bold and incredibly heart-racing, and in most of these departments, it delivers.
The first character we meet is dispatcher Abby Clark (Connie Britton), who is struggling to cope because her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. A bit clichéd perhaps, but it’s easy to overlook, as it makes her more human, which I’m guessing is one of the goals of the show — to humanise these heroes that we take for granted on a daily basis. What really bothered me about Abby’s backstory, though, is the way in which we’re given it. Yep, you guessed it: via voiceover.
First of all, let me just say that I have no issue with voiceover. In fact, under the right circumstances, it’s an absolutely terrific way of relaying vital information to the audience. Murphy himself has proven this on many occasions, specifically with regards to larger-than-life characters like Glee’s Rachel Berry or American Horror Story: Freak Show’s Elsa Mars. With 9-1-1, however, the voiceover is inadequate, as it serves no purpose other than to relay information. Abby isn’t an introvert, nor is she a self-obsessed drama queen, so therefore there’s really no reason for her to communicate via this device. The writers could’ve been a bit more creative and given us this information in other ways — via subtext, for example. Moreover, 9-1-1 is an ensemble series, so the decision to allow Abby to communicate via voiceover is really confusing, given that she’s not the only protagonist.
The voiceover isn’t even the main offender here, as there is one scene in the premiere episode of 9-1-1 riddled with exposition. Now, exposition is something I have a real problem with. The second character we’re introduced to is firefighter Bobby Nash (Peter Krause), who confesses his sins to the newbie priest (Gavin Stenhouse) but he also decides to tell said priest his entire backstory. You see the problem? Even with the priest’s newcomer status used as a plot device, the exposition is rife.
We meet the self-proclaimed sex addict Evan “Buck” Buckley (Oliver Stark), who doesn’t take the job seriously enough, despite being incredibly good at it. Bobby is on Buck’s case over his lack of commitment, and this provides Buck with something —i.e. a goal — to work on and pursue throughout the episode. Buck is one of the most interesting characters in the show, that’s for sure.
Problematic dialogue aside, there is a lot to like about 9-1-1. Sure, the emergencies verge on sensationalism, but the strong writing and pacing covers that up rather nicely. When firefighters are summoned to rescue a new-born baby that had been flushed down the toilet (see what I mean about sensationalism?), we’re introduced to feisty uniformed police officer, Athena Grant (Angela Bassett).
Athena takes no prisoners, and gives the job her all, leaving her personal problems at the door. Bassett is wonderful here — as she is in all her authoritarian roles — and Murphy and his crew always give the acclaimed actress show-stopping lines — something her American Horror Story: Coven character had on tap. Buck clashes with Athena, which doesn’t go down too well for Buck with Bobby. Things get worse for the young responder, as, after the firefighter’s rescue Jesse (Sarah Hay) — whose pet snake was strangling her to death — he decides to make out with her on a rooftop. Bobby disapproves and fires his young companion for continually neglecting his job.
While there are certainly structural problems throughout — not to mention too many characters — 9-1-1 vastly improves in the second half of the episode. The focus shifts back to Abby, as she takes a 911 call from a scared little girl named Lily (Alyvia Alyn Lind), who’s currently hiding in her home from burglars. Lily doesn’t know her address, which proves to be a great story move, as it allows Abby to stay involved in the situation for once, as she figures out what to do next. She pulls out all of the stops to find Lily’s location. She manages to estimate the whereabouts of the young girl and calls in Athena to check it out. To aid in the investigation, Athena summons the fire department, but Buck — who hasn’t yet vacated the station — is the only one available, giving the young guy a chance to prove his worth. Now we’re talking.
Abby’s plan is to have Buck drive around the suspected area, sounding the horn, hoping that she will be able to hear it via her phone call with Lily. It works, but by this stage, the home invaders have worked out that Lily is in the house. Over the phone, Abby attempts to ensure Lily’s safety, and she even promises the burglars an exit strategy. Athena and Buck, who had previously clashed, work together to capture the two men. The pacing and tension is terrific. Abby is hailed as a hero and feels better about herself, and Buck gets reinstated, all the while Queen’s “Under Pressure” plays over the scene. Is it clichéd and on the nose? Sure, but at this stage in the game, that’s not important. 9-1-1 isn’t trying to win any awards, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, which is to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Ryan Murphy doesn’t do things by halves and the acclaimed writer-director-producer (if I listed all his credits we’ll be here all day) has his plate full. From The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to Pose, he certainly hasn’t been messing about. 9-1-1 isn’t his strongest outing, nor is it even his best work this year, but, with a little structural work, it promises to be quite the thrill ride. Before storytelling was the be-all and end-all, television was meant to be pure escapism, and that’s exactly what you get with 9-1-1.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson
9-1-1 continues Wednesday at 9pm on Sky Witness.