Dick Wolf has done it again! And I do mean again--he has produced a generic television drama with all of the same characters and trappings we've come to expect from prime-time fare.
Wolf, the man who created 'Law & Order' and its various offspring, is the producer behind the new NBC drama 'Chicago Fire' which aired last night at 10:00pm EST.
As you can see, 'Chicago Fire' boasts a very sexy cast.
Michael Brandt and Derek Haas are the creators of the series which Dick Wolf has backed financially, in a big way. NBC has jumped aboard the hype-machine, as advertising for 'Chicago Fire' has been as prominent and constant as any new series this season. The fanfare seems to suggest that 'Chicago Fire' is the marquee of NBC's new line-up of pilots, with several recognizable television stars comprising the ensemble. The series follows the lives of the firefighters and paramedics working at the Chicago Fire Department at the firehouse of Engine 51, Truck 81, Squad 3, Medic 61, and Battalion 25. There is clear attention to detail present and the series seems primed to take a lengthy run in a prime-time slot.
The pilot episode debuted last night on NBC: so did it deliver?
For those of you who didn't get the opportunity to watch 'Chicago Fire' last night, I would ask you if you have ever seen any other show in the same genre-vein. Ever seen 'Chicago Hope?' 'ER?' 'Third Watch?' 'Rescue Me?' I could continue... the point I am making is, if you have seen any episodes of any of the aforementioned shows, then you essentially have already seen the pilot of 'Chicago Fire.'
I am not saying that 'Chicago Fire' was a bad episode last night--I am saying that we've all seen it before. Any of us who are fans of the genre could likely have written the script ourselves: we collect a cast of characters who are all uncannily familiar. There is the new recruit to the force who is following in his father's footsteps, shrugging off friendly hazing with a grin. There is the tortured veteran, struggling with the loss of a fellow firefighter, turning to drug abuse to cope. There is the stoic chief who imparts wisdom through poor-man's Aesop fables. And on, and on we go.
Again: I am not insulting the series for falling into generic traps. I love genre; if someone makes a zombie movie or a western, I will enjoy it more if they engage directly with what those genres have caused us to expect. The place where 'Chicago Fire' is lacking is in the sense that this series merely checked off the boxes of what was requires to produce such a drama and barely lifted a finger from that point forward. There is absolutely nothing new in the first episode of 'Chicago Fire,' as every plot device is something we've all seen countless times before.
As for the cast, NBC has assembled an all-star team of prime-time drama stars. Our main protagonist is named Matthew Casey, played by the handsome blonde Australian Jesse Spencer ('House'), putting on an American accent. There are romantic feelings teased between Casey and Gabriela Dawson, portrayed by the vivacious Monica Raymund ('Lie to Me'). Their gruff chief is played by Eamonn Walker ('The Whole Truth') and they even gleaned the absolute best thing about 'Sex and the City' and snapped up David Eigenberg. These are proven talents with recognizable faces and, in the end, it may be these names that end up keeping 'Chicago Fire' afloat; I have a sneaking suspicion that the writing of the series won't be able to carry that load on its own.
There is one fatal flaw that comes with the territory of any rescue-themed series--one that, unfortunately, Brandt and Haas have fallen victim to with 'Chicago Fire.' With any series based on the brave and admirable men and women that work tirelessly to protect us from harm, you need the dramatic tension to stem from an accident.... and if you want that accident to reverberate through the series beyond a mere "part of the job" shrug, you need one of your characters to cause that accident by failing to follow protocol.
This happens at least three times in the premiere episode of 'Chicago Fire:' we see the death of one of the Company's firefighters after he carelessly ignored the orders from his superiors to wait until the building was vented. Tragic, sure, but he was told not to enter (because he could die), he disregarded that, and then he died. Later in the same episode, Monica Raymund's paramedic character Gabriela ignores protocol and forces her aumbulance driver to stop rushing to the hospital so that she may administer a medical procedure on the side of the road. She is told that she isn't supposed to do this, yet she insists, and.... well, I'm sure you see where I am going with this. The need to have your characters falter due to pride is as old as Sophoclean theatre, but in a series like 'Chicago Fire,' these decisions lead to the deaths of innocent people and we are asked to grieve not for them, but for the characters who made the mistake. It is often just a quagmire that comes with the territory of any such series, but the first episode of 'Chicago Fire' shows us that the series won't be breaking any new ground on that particular front.
While these cast members have obvious talent, the script of the first episode hasn't given any of the characters any room to stretch their legs. The dialogue is so sparse and quotidian that there is no opportunity for any of the cast members to emote. Just to give you all an idea of what these poor actors are dealing with, I have turned an actual scene from last night's episode into a friendly little comic strip:
Please enjoy it responsibly. And bear in mind--this is real dialogue from last night's broadcast.
..... Annnnnd SCENE!
Wow. Did they wake up Billy Shakespeare and get him to punch up this script?
I realize that, sadly, people actually have conversations like the one above. But it does nothing for a series that needs to make every moment of a pilot episode count. We are left guessing at what these characters think and feel because the poor actors have only monosyllabic grunts to get their point across. Hopefully, this will improve in the coming episodes.
Despite my heavy-handed comic strippery, 'Chicago Fire' wasn't terrible. I simply cannot muster any excitement over the episode because it was also nothing new. They will have more episodes to make up for this lacklustre outing, I'm certain, as the marketing machine remains in full swing. But it's going to take more than shirtless hunks to keep the American audience tuning in every week.
..... isn't it??
FINAL GRADE: C