Weirdness exists on a spectrum, in many different kinds and degrees. For example, there’s “just walked into a room and everything looks normal but something seems off” weird, and “this lunch meat smells funny” weird, and “two giraffes riding around town in a convertible” weird, among others. “Weird” is truly one of our most versatile words. Take a few minutes to consider that. Not too long, please, because I need to show you screencaps of an occupied children’s bouncy house floating off into the California sky (coming soon, promise), but’s important that you really wrap your head around this flexibility in the language before we discuss Ryan Murphy’s new Fox first responder drama 9-1-1, because it is weird in at least two distinct ways.
First, the fun one. Here is an incomplete list of things that have happened through the first three episodes of 9-1-1:
– A woman flushed a baby down the toilet and a team of firefighters had to cut a pipe out of the wall and squirt a ton of lube into the pipe to slide the baby out, alive.
– A sex-addicted fireman nicknamed Firehose decapitated a snake with an axe because the snake was strangling its owner, and then he went back to the owner’s building and used the fire truck’s fully extended ladder to meet her on the roof for passionate sex in broad daylight.
– A violent burglar attempted to flee a crime scene on a motorcycle and Firehose blasted him off the bike with an actual firehouse. This one is my favorite. I could watch it forever. And I might, once I finish writing this post.
– A man flew out of his seat during a ride on a rollercoaster and fell to his death because the bar holding him in the seat malfunctioned, possibly because of his heavyset friend’s girth.
– Firehose went to therapy for his sex addiction and ended up having sex with his therapist — played by Autumn Reeser, known by many as Taylor Townsend from The O.C. — before the first appointment was over.
– A divorced dad tried to buy his son’s affection by getting a bouncy house for a birthday party but the plan backfired when he joined his son inside and his adult body mass shook the restraints loose and the entire damn bouncy house floated off into the wind. I think a series of screencaps will help me drive home how wild this all was.
Point being: This show is wild as hell. Especially when you consider that three of those things — the baby, the rollercoaster, and the bouncy house — happened during the cold opens of their respective episodes. That is how all of the episodes start. I have no idea if and/or how one can top “launching wealthy children into the sky inside an inflatable castle,” but the show has already been picked up for a second season, so at least they’ll have a lot of chances to try. We are all, to quote society’s modern-day philosophers, quite hashtag blessed.
But this brings us to the second way 9-1-1 is weird. All of this crazy stuff — the dramatic rescues and goofy emergencies — makes up maybe 20 percent of each episode. The rest of the show — the vast majority of it, staggered in there between the wildest stuff you’ve ever seen on a television show — is a kind of boring and sappy straightforward network melodrama. The whole thing is kind of like someone up and crossed a B+ This Is Us about first responders with an A- version of Zoo that doesn’t involve lab-made hellbeasts attacking civilians, but could someday, who knows, you saw that firehose GIF.
An example will help. Let’s try this: In the third episode, a main character found her daughter on the floor surrounded by pills, a clear suicide attempt caused in part by the revelation that her parents’ marriage is failing because her father recently came out of the closet. That’s some really heavy business. And it happened immediately after the thing with the bouncy house. I swear to God. With no commercial break. We rolled straight from a balloon emergency into attempted teen suicide and marital problems. The shift in tone is enough to give you whiplash and, no, we cannot rule out “person sustains serious injury caused by abrupt tonal shift on television show” as a future potential cold open.
And it gets wilder. 9-1-1 — again, a show that opened its series premiere with firemen sliding a lubed-up infant out of a poo pipe — has an incredible cast. Connie Britton plays an operator at the emergency call center who is also caring for her ill mother. Peter Krause plays the head fireman, who is also a recovering addict with a family life he doesn’t talk about. Freaking Angela Bassett plays the no-nonsense cop whose marriage is falling apart and who may or may not now be stalking teenagers who were mean to her daughter before her suicide attempt. In a more just world, all three of those people are headlining their own prestige-type drama on some cable network or streaming service. Instead, they are scooping up the remains of people who perished in rollercoaster disasters. Like I said, it’s all so wild. Not quite “Michael Shannon and Christina Hendricks starring in a movie about Bigfoot saving Christmas” wild, but surprisingly close.
There are reasons for all of this, I’m sure. The thinking was probably something along the lines of “We’ll hook the audience with the crazy stuff then reel them in with the type of captivating family drama that will keep them coming back,” with a dash of “We cast these impressive actors and we need to give them, like, acting to do,” but the result is two pieces that are very strange when placed together. I would probably cut the show more slack if the family/work plots were more interesting, but as it stands now, I just want to see them flip the ratio. Cut the drama to 20 percent and give me wall-to-wall crazy emergencies for the rest. You can’t tease me with flying bouncy houses and then expect me to settle in for an extended discussion about putting a loved one in a nursing home. I’m not that strong. Daddy needs action.
Although maybe they are starting to figure out a balance. Toward the end of the third episode, Chimney — a fireman whose marriage proposal had just been rejected by the action-junkie girlfriend he’s been embellishing his exploits to — speeds off in his car after an argument with Peter Krause’s character, and after veering and slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident on the highw-…
Boom. Rebar through the forehead. A major character on the show is now in a coma because he sped off after fighting with his girlfriend and boss and a piece of rebar flew through his windshield and into his face. I feel a little bad getting excited about it because he seemed like a decent-if-delusional guy, but on the other hand, you know, rebar through the forehead. You can see the dilemma here.
There is just so much happening, all the time, some of it totally disconnected from the rest. It is two things that don’t quite fit together, one of which involves the craziest and campiest stuff you’ve ever seen, and the other of which is either trying way too hard or barely at all to be Emmy bait. It’s kind of the same formula that worked for Ryan Murphy with The People v. O.J. Simpson (great performance and riveting drama interspersed with, like, John Travolta attempting to emote straight through his designer suit), but with each element cranked up so far that the little needles that register them are way over into the red area label “DANGER” and shaking violently. It is somehow both my favorite show in the world and a show I am constantly tempted to fast-forward through.
Which is… yeah. It’s all pretty freaking wild, man.
9-1-1 airs Wednesday at 9pm ET on Fox.