Ryan Murphy is the closest thing we have to television royalty.
Just about everything he touches turns to gold, and he’s managed to attract some of Hollywood’s biggest names to headline his series. This is the man who lured two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange to the weird, kinky world of American Horror Story. The same man who managed to get Gwyneth Paltrow to take a break from Marvel movies to stop by Glee and cameo in the short-lived The New Normal (a rare Murphy-backed flop). He, somehow, convinced Lady Gaga to put her music career on hold to play the lead in American Horror Story: Hotel, earning her a Golden Globe in the process.
And, in 2018, he will produce at least four series–five if the sophomore season of Feud enters production. And he’s making his way to Broadway this spring, bringing a stacked cast of actors to the stage in a production of Boys in the Band. He’s an undeniable legend.
So… why is he wasting his energy on 9-1-1? And, more importantly, how did he convince so many great actors to squander their talent?
9-1-1 is nothing more than your standard cop procedural, filtered through Ryan Murphy’s unmistakable lens. It follows emergency responders as they answer the call for help, rush to the scene, and carry out the task at hand, to varying levels of success. The only two things separating it from your average CBS procedural is that it’s slightly more diverse, and shoves three different subplots from a regular cop drama into one, supersized episode. It moves fast and looks pretty, which is definitely the best thing it has to offer audiences. But there’s nothing here they haven’t seen before.
The writing is embarrassingly bad, even by the low standards procedurals are often held to, a sin made even more offensive when you consider how many actors the series wastes. Connie Britton is saddled with the unfortunate task of narrating the pilot as Abby Clark, an operator for the titular emergency phone line whose biggest flaw is that she cares too much. When she’s not handling the phone line, she’s at home taking care of her sick mother, a subplot that does nothing more than create an artificial reason for you to care about this one-dimensional character.
There are other archetypes appearing throughout the pilot, from the cocky womanizer with a heart of gold (Oliver Stark), to the nice but dorky dude with lady troubles (Kenneth Choi). Hell, there’s even a grizzled recovering addict who offers sage advice throughout the pilot (Peter Krause). These characters are horrendously underwritten and painfully dull.
One major selling point to 9-1-1 is that the series reunites Murphy with his frequent collaborator Angela Bassett, who also produces. As police officer Athena Grant, Basset has the chance to play a badass cop who is great at her job, a wonderful opportunity that is rarely afforded to actresses over 30, let alone 50.
Unfortunately, Basset is also saddled with a dated domestic subplot, as Athena struggles with her husband’s recent admission that he’s gay. While Bassett tries her hardest, this subplot feels strange and distracting. It’s also worth noting that, as the series’ sole LGBTQ+ character, this outdated character model feels somewhat underwhelming in terms of representation.
This ridiculously overqualified ensemble try their hardest to make the stale material work. Angela Bassett has a commanding screen presence, while Connie Britton radiates warmth and compassion. It’s also kind of fun to see Peter Krause play the stern mentor to a hotshot womanizer, after playing the latter sort of role in Six Feet Under almost 20 years ago.
But these actors can only do so much.
As talented as Krause is, he can’t do anything to fix the embarrassingly bad dialogue he’s given, and both leading ladies are given one-note parts that don’t suit their dynamic ranges. Meanwhile Choi, along with fellow series regular Aisha Hinds (Underground), are given minimal screentime. And, as the ‘loose cannon firefighter who doesn’t play by the rules’, Oliver Stark is embarrassingly bad, flying so over-the-top that his work almost feels like parody. So, the question must be asked: what is everyone doing here?
Admittedly, the series has some bursts of entertainment, mainly because, in true Ryan Murphy fashion, the show “goes there” with unusual medical cases that you won’t find in, say, an ER rerun. But it doesn’t matter – this show still feels like something that would have been tired in 1998. In 2018, where Ryan Murphy has delivered groundbreaking television for more than a decade, 9-1-1 feels like a decidedly minor blip in this living legend’s oeuvre.
Overall rating: 3 out of 10.