Practically since the dawn of television, there’s been a Holy Trinity of acceptable professions: cops, doctors, and lawyers. (For a while, there were also cowboys, but most of them were essentially cops with bigger hats.) If your main characters have one of those three jobs, you will not lack for storylines, nor, most of the time, for interested viewers.
For some reason, firefighters have never really cracked that list, despite being heroic public servants like cops, life-savers like doctors and having cool accessories, vehicles, Dalmations, stunts, thrills, etc. There have been successful dramas about firemen from time to time, but not nearly as many as for the other occupations, and often requiring a twist. “Third Watch” also had cops and paramedics as part of the mix, and the firefighters were usually last in the show’s pecking order. “Rescue Me” ran seven seasons, but was always at least half a comedy about Dennis Leary’s relationship problems.
The challenge with firefighting as the subject of an ongoing drama series — a challenge that’s amply on display in NBC’s forgettable new “Chicago Fire” (it debuts tonight at 10 p.m.) — is that the hero isn’t trying to stop a person, but a literal force of nature. Fire is scary and comes in many varieties, but it doesn’t have a personality. It’s not looking for revenge and doesn’t toss off memorable dialogue. So the conflict among the characters has to come almost entire from within: Do I want to keep risking my life every day for other people? Do I trust the guy on the truck next to me? Do I need another drink to make it through this shift?
And that can work if the characters are deep enough. (Whatever the flaws of “Rescue Me,” Tommy Gavin kept things interesting for a very long time.) If they’re as shallow as the ones on “Chicago Fire,” though, then you’re left with a lot of pretty fire and good-looking people in ash-covered uniforms.
“Chicago Fire” is produced by “Law & Order” maestro Dick Wolf, but was created by Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, and they’ve fashioned a crew of stock types, including upright hero Lt. Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer from “House,” neutered by an American accent), his bad boy rival from the rescue squad Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney from “The Vampire Diaries”), wise firehouse chief Wallace Boden (Eamonn Walker from “Oz”), eager rookie Peter Mills (Charlie Barnett), wisecracking veteran Christopher Herrmann (David Eigenberg from “Sex and the City”). There’s no character you haven’t seen before. More importantly, there’s no character that hasn’t been done much, much better elsewhere. The chief character comes close to transcending the type, just through the distinctive fury of Walker’s performance (few in the business can jut their jaw as well), but it’s a bland group of people dealing with clichéd situations. Jeffrey DeMunn from “The Walking Dead” shows up briefly in the second episode as the victim of a construction site collapse and acts Taylor Kinney off the screen. (Construction is also not a profession that seems ideally suited for a weekly drama, but I’d have rather followed that guy home than Severide.)
“Third Watch” wasn’t always so fabulous with the characterization, either, but it compensated with how well the rescue scenes were shot. (It took the action movie ethos of sister show “ER” and took it outdoors.) The action on “Chicago Fire” is competent but unspectacular; “Rescue Me,” working with a much lower basic cable budget, produced a greater sense of dread each time its guys went into a burning building.
Wolf’s philosophy with “Law & Order” was that the story was always the star, and the characters could be replaced when necessary. You can pull that off if your characters are cops and district attorneys, but when they’re firemen, they have to be able to carry an hour of television every week. Through three episodes of “Chicago Fire,” there’s no one I felt the need to ever see again.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org