Chicago Fire

Chicago Fire debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Zack Handlen: Chicago Fire wants to be raw. It’s full of intense people making intense decisions in moments of great intensity—crises where life hangs in the balance, and men and women driven to extremes by the extremities of their chosen profession. That sort of thing. It’s understandable, really. As deadening as it is to realize that apparently 90 percent of all network dramas (and a large chunk of cable drama as well) have to be about cops, doctors, lawyers, or some variation of the three, there’s a reason for it. Cops and other emergency personnel come equipped with automatic drama. Life or death stakes for an EMT isn’t a hard sell, and the fragmentary, moment-to-moment nature of their relationship with the public lends itself to episodic TV. Chicago Fire, with its focus on a group of firefighters and their partner rescue squad, offers a small change from the norm; there have certainly been firefighter series before this, but the genre doesn’t feel nearly as overcrowded. Plus, the nature of the job means the potential for a higher mortality rate, which increases the danger and the pathos.

All well and good, but while the pilot throws just about every possible chunk of melodrama at the viewer it can grab—dead coworker, drug addiction, new recruit, station rivalry driven by feelings of guilt over aforementioned death, struggling romances, home foreclosures, authority figures questioning their place in the world—little of it ever truly lands. Every beat is familiar, from the emptying of the dead man’s locker to the not at all homoerotic glares between male leads Matthew Casey (House alum Jesse Spencer, doing an American accent that adds an unfortunate element of over-enunciation to every corny line) and Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney). The new guy gets hazed, but (spoiler alert) proves himself in a crisis. Everybody is angry at having all these feelings, but damn it, when trouble hits, they’re ready for it. This is all professionally done, but straight-faced to a level just shy of self-parody, a Mad Libs script that isn’t in on the joke.

The actors are all game, although that doesn’t mean much when the episode requires them to be a heroic and tortured man or woman. Nearly all of them are incredibly good-looking, and given the show’s apparent intentions to be a down-to-earth look at the people who keep us safe, the mean level of attractiveness is high enough to be a point of distraction. Yes, there are a couple of normal looking guys in the cast (note the “guys”), and sure, TV people are almost always going to be prettier than those of us stuck in the trenches of real life. But the killer cheekbones and flawless skin on display here make the attempts at serious drama all the more suspect, as though everyone’s just killing time before the show turns into the stealth Models, Inc. remake it’s aching to be.

Ultimately, this is just another flaw to lay at the feet of a bland, texture-less script. The pilot isn’t completely vapid—the revelation that one of the firefighters lost his home raises a money issue that could create interesting problems down the line—but this hour is so by the numbers that most viewers will be able to set a watch to it. Next week’s episode improves slightly, with an effective guest turn from Jeffrey DeMunn and some signs that the show is learning to embrace the sexy, sexy melodrama. Who knows? If the series takes off in the ratings and has some time to develop, it could build into something that isn’t a complete waste of time. But for right now, there’s not enough here to recommend an investment. Executive producer Dick Wolf has made a career out of crafting addictive television, and this ain’t that.  

Todd VanDerWerff: Chicago Fire isn’t bad. Its primary selling point appears to be its competence, to the point where it feels like the edgiest, hardest-hitting drama of 1993. This is a show that thinks the revelation that a beautiful woman is a lesbian is somehow shocking and gritty, and it’s a show that hits essentially every beat dozens of other series just like it have hit before. The most admirable thing about it is how it manages to successfully set the bar for its success so low that all it has to do to clear it is air in its regularly scheduled timeslot. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach to making TV, but it’s hard to see this becoming the sort of pleasurable show one might devour in a cable marathon some rainy afternoon. That would require some level of risk, and Chicago Fire is all about presenting the least risky choices imaginable.

That said, it’s nice to see NBC embracing its workplace drama roots, and Dick Wolf is smart to have embraced this script from creators Derek Haas and Michael Brandt. Even if the show breaks so little new ground that it seems afraid to step in areas that were already well-trod 15 years ago, there are too few dramas on the networks right now that are as interested in their characters’ personal lives as their professional lives, and Chicago Fire does a competent job of splitting the difference. The characters are also written in such a way that they have slightly distinctive voices, and there are fun performances here and there (particularly from David Eigenberg as the guy losing his house). In the first three episodes, a variety of storylines are set up and developed, and even if the show is often let down by the bland Spencer and Kinney, they at least seem to fit with the overall aesthetic. Again, Chicago Fire isn’t bad, but it doesn’t reach for anything beyond “average.” It’s the kind of show aiming for “well done for what it’s trying to do” that never quite figures out what it’s trying to do and, instead, tries to do everything.