Chicago Fire — “A Hell Of A Ride” 

Chicago Fire — “A Hell Of A Ride” 

Of all the various stories from this network television season, Chicago Fire’s is the least likely and perhaps the most interesting. It began the season as almost an afterthought on NBC’s schedule, dismissed as competently bland nothingness and overshadowed by the splashy premise and good reviews of its timeslot-mate, Nashville. It was practically designed to fall victim to NBC’s recent inability to launch, well, anything; a lamb offered up to the slaughter of an entire network’s downfall.

But a funny thing happened as the season progressed. While Nashville’s creative trajectory and ratings steadily fell before stabilizing at a tepid level one could only call “meh,” Chicago Fire’s ratings actually rose, regularly drawing at least a million more viewers than its competition and winning the timeslot. More importantly than the ratings—at least for viewers—was that creatively the show grew as well, so much so that NBC gave the show a vote of confidence by not only creating a spinoff next season focusing on Chicago police officers, but relocating the show to one of the few premier timeslots NBC has, following The Voice on Tuesdays. These are bold choices, showing NBC’s extreme confidence in Chicago Fire’s ability to potentially gain viewers and grow into the hit the network thinks it deserves to be.

Is all this confidence warranted? Well, the jury is still out on that. Chicago Fire was never a bad show; it was just mired in inconsequence, obsessed with the dynamics of a group of bland characters’ lives while never quite presenting a justification for said obsession. Slowly, though, the show figured out the intricacies of the relationships in the firehouse and embraced what it did best: action and friendships.

At its heart, Chicago Fire is a workplace drama about a highly stressful workplace, the type of workplace where you form bonds with your coworkers that are almost stronger than family. Once the show decided to focus on things like the tentative friendship between always-rivals Casey and Severide, or the unshakeable bond between Severide and his lesbian roommate, Shay, everything around those bonds immediately grew sharper in return, as those bonds could now be used to enliven what is one of the show’s larger strengths: its action setpieces.

Chicago Fire’s closest relative—and the show it feels like it most wants to emulate—is ER, another NBC workplace drama set in Chicago. But where ER (at least in its early years) focused on the everyday, mundane operations of an emergency room, only occasionally venturing into special “event” episode territory, Chicago Fire’s weekly action setpieces by nature feel like an event episode every week. This is great fun most of the time, and over the course of the season, the show’s production team has gotten surprisingly adept at depicting fires on an almost-weekly basis, but by pushing the action from the mundane to the sensational every week, it forces those big setpieces to be shorter by a production necessity, placing far more emphasis on what happens when these people aren’t fighting fires.

That’s where things get a little dicey. The one thing the show hasn’t mastered yet is subtlety in the characters’ personal affairs, almost as if the writers have no idea how to tell an interesting character story without torturing the character to the point of pure misery porn. Over the span of just this one season, characters have been involved with street gangs, killed people, been through the cycles of a drug habit, had a fiancé murdered, been targeted by a dirty cop, and on, and on, and on. I said on Twitter last week that Chicago Fire is all the misery porn parts of ER without any of the quieter, more subtle character moments, and this finale definitely didn’t attempt to dissuade me from this opinion.

Not that the misery porn is all bad, though. There’s almost a comfort to it at times, knowing that you are going to tune into the show every week and get a decent dose of over-the-top rescues and equally over-the-top soapy drama. In order to sustain the show and grow it into the legitimate hit NBC seems so desperate for it to be, though, at some point the show needs to slow down a bit and figure out how to make the quiet moments more compelling. The actors and their performances started the season as a sort of uniformly bland blob, but along the way, both the actors and writers have managed to inject personality into these people. Now, they just need to give them moments to let that personality breathe a little.

As for the finale specifically, it was unfortunately one of the show’s more stagnant efforts. Despite my praise of the show’s action setpieces above, despite the episode being fraught with potential drama—the characters are trapped in a prison and the power goes out, for goodness’ sake—this was a rare example of the action having almost no urgency at all. The script hit all the beats of a tense prison riot, with a dead guard, inmates taking one of the firemen hostage, and a medical emergency, but at no time was the pacing, directing, or acting ever on the same page about the level of urgency involved.

The balance of the whole thing was off as well, and this imbalance affected the episode. This episode was designed as more of an overt “event,” with the action taking center stage, so the character drama was severely pushed to the background, with the show attempting to shoehorn in a few huge melodramatic soapy moments with a third of the screen time those moments would get in a normal episode. Shay’s not pregnant, oh no! Mills got rejected for a promotion and is joining the police academy, what the heck? Christopher’s wife had the baby, and there were complications, but everything is fine, yawn! Sarah Shahi is back, and she’s pregnant with Severide’s baby, okay, that’s random!

This might have worked better if the action portions were more urgent, or if any of the character beats overtly affected those moments, but for the most part it was two completely separate affairs. For the show to go into season two with a higher profile and far greater expectations, it’s disappointing to see what is generally a fun, solid, reliable show go out on kind of a dud. The one saving grace, and the thing that cements my feeling that this is a perfectly enjoyable show that is worth my time, was the final scene between Casey and Dawson. It’s a small little thing—Dawson goes to talk to Casey at his house, checking in with him after the death of his fiancé—but it turns into so much more, said with so little dialogue. She approaches his porch and notices papers stacked up on the stoop. She walks in and sees his living areas in shambles, and Casey is just sitting there amongst it all. Whatever façade he’s putting on at work about being fine is completely shattered here.

It’s a great show-don’t-tell moment, a small moment that’s like a beacon to the audience, signaling Chicago Fire’s interest in continuing to explore these characters and these relationships, even if they do sometimes meander into the more overtly ridiculous end of the soap spectrum. It’s never going to be a groundbreaking show, but as long as it continues to work out the kinks as it goes along, I say it’s worth going along for the ride.

Finale grade: C+
Season grade: B

Stray observations:

  • The one bit of misery porn I could not get on board with this season was killing Casey’s fiancé. It smacked of manipulation, bringing her back for just barely an episode before killing her off. The only interesting thing about it was Casey’s broken-down moment with Dawson at the end of the episode.
  • Spinoff Chicago PD’s two lead characters are plucked from the least interesting storylines on the show (Jason Beghe as maybe-dirty cop Voight and Jon Seda as Dawson’s cop brother Antonio), and the episode launching the show was maybe the worst of the season, so I don’t have high hopes.
  • There’s something supremely hilarious about Severide’s best friend being a lesbian. It’s like he’s so good looking he couldn’t have a female be his friend without wanting to sleep with him, so they just took the sex off the table upfront.
  • My vote for most ridiculous storyline of the season was Severide’s sexual harassment story. That was at least three levels of dumb. 
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