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A firefighter muscles through smoke and confusion, then dives into rising water to save passengers stuck in an airliner downed in the Pacific. A police sergeant bursts out of the duct tape around her wrists, tackling a crazed killer. A group of wedding celebrants falls through two stories of a negligently built structure, and emergency personnel race in to rescue. Fox’s popular new TV drama 9-1-1 revels in mayhem, but the first responders’ own lives are equally chaotic.
Long ago, shows like Emergency! (1972-1979) or CHiPs (1977-1983) could present first responders as uncomplicated heroes: They rescued people, put out fires, and caught the bad guys. That simplicity is not enough for today’s TV writers.
In 9-1-1, the characters have messy personal stories, full of turmoil and drama (including some foul language and sexual situations). Chief Bobby Nash (Peter Krause) turns to alcohol and drugs to forget his guilty past. Patrol Sgt. Athena Grant (Angela Bassett) tries to keep her family together after her husband reveals he is gay, and her daughter attempts suicide. The new kid on the squad has sex with every woman he can, using a fire engine as his personal cruiser. A firefighter, enraged at being turned down in a marriage proposal, crashes his Subaru spectacularly, ending up with a piece of rebar impaled through his skull. (Spoiler alert: He survives, but his girlfriend doesn’t bother to visit.)
It is almost a relief for the viewer when the emergency calls come in and the sirens start. At least then the audience can cheer for the heroes to save the day. Once they return to their homes and families, the real chaos comes back. The writers try to present family as an institution worth fighting for, but the message is lost in the mayhem. And the family for which they battle is hardly recognizable as the God-ordained structure of a man and a woman united in marriage.
Chief Bobby does turn to a priest for confession and counsel. But the cleric never advises him that God’s forgiveness, love, and mercy are the only answers to the messiness of a fallen world.