Strange — what would Ryan Murphy want with Dick Wolf's empire?
"9-1-1," an engaging but surprisingly rote drama from hitmaker Murphy and co-creators Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear, premieres Wednesday night on Fox, and from its initial siren wail, it seems very much like one of Wolf's Chicago-based NBC dramas about first responders, save for the Los Angeles location.
It's different, maybe. The idea seems to be that these first responders will work more frantic shifts — ludicrously frantic, judging from the pilot episode made available to critics, which includes a drowning teenager, a suicidal jumper, a baby flushed down a toilet, a python trying to kill its owner and so on. "9-1-1" seems to suggest the outcomes won't always be happy or fully resolved. It becomes more interesting when failure is an option.
The show has an impressive cast: Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights"), who starred in the first season of Murphy and Falchuk's "American Horror Story" on FX, co-stars here as Abby Clark, a 911 dispatcher who is quick-thinking and stouthearted. She'll let you have it if you tie up her emergency lines with a complaint about the drive-through mixing up your fast-food order, but she's definitely the smooth operator you'll want in the middle of, say, a home invasion. The only problem, as Abby tells us ("9-1-1" is full of her voice-over narration; maybe it's because she's wearing a headset) is that she hardly ever gets to hear how everything turned out — the caller usually hangs up once help arrives.
Angela Bassett (another "American Horror Story" alum) co-stars as Athena Grant, a police field sergeant with an assignment portfolio broad enough to allow her to show up to just about any emergency call (the L.A. of "9-1-1" doesn't suffer heavy traffic), just when her shrewd assessment of the situation is most needed.
Finally there's Peter Krause ("Six Feet Under"; "The Catch") who has segued nicely into an older and more complex role as Bobby Nash, the station chief at a firehouse where gallows humor is a preferred coping mechanism.
"9-1-1" presents the intriguing possibility that even though Athena and Bobby encounter (and sometimes clash with) each other in the field, neither of them may ever meet Abby, who does all her work at her terminal in the dispatch center.
Hewing to its predecessors (decades of first-responder shows come to mind, from "Emergency!" to "E.R."), "9-1-1" gives its main characters a standard ration of personal problems to cope with when their shifts are over: Athena's husband (Rockmund Dunbar) just came out of the closet. Abby's mother has Alzheimer's disease. Bobby is a recovering alcoholic who relies on fire-department regimen and weekly visits to the confessional booth to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Overall, it feels very much like a pilot episode from 10 or 15 seasons ago, and that's a shame, because pilot episodes are something at which Murphy and his crew usually excel. A viewer keeps waiting for a real surprise to come along — as if "9-1-1" is really only the television equivalent of wrapping paper, and any minute another, completely provocative show will jump out of the box with a bang.
It's worth staying on the line for another episode or two to wait and see. But so far, nothing about "9-1-1" seems all that dire.
9-1-1 (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.