If you're a member of Generation X, then watching "Emergency!" on NBC in the 1970s or in immediate syndication was likely a regular occurrence. Based on the supposed accuracy of medical techniques used in the show, the show's actors reportedly inspired many to become paramedics and firefighters. That might not necessarily be the case with NBC's new "Emergency"-inspired "Chicago Fire," where the attention is more on the action and behind-the-scenes politics than complete firefighting procedures.
A show like "Chicago Fire" may appear to lack freshness when we've already seen so many classic shows presenting a particular profession in a real and compelling way. Even with the long-running "Rescue Me" on FX, there must have been some skepticism from an NBC suit about bringing a mainstream network show about firefighters to primetime. Plus, there must be short memories about a particular NBC failure called "Trauma" two years ago.
"Trauma" was originally intended to be the true revival of the "Emergency!" format, where we saw hair-raising rescues and the latest medical technology at work. It was canceled, though, after one low-rated season in 2010.
No matter how much action "Trauma" concocted in the vein of "Emergency!," it was the characters that made the latter avoid becoming a one-season casualty. "Emergency!" always had a threat of cancellation in the 1970s, considering it went up against a strong Saturday night lineup on CBS that consisted of "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Yet all of the main "Emergency!" characters were likable and interesting enough to hook fans from nearly every demographic.
For many female fans, Randolph Mantooth (playing Johnny Gage) and Kevin Tighe (as Roy DeSoto) were a continuous draw. For older viewers and male fans, the idea of jazz singer Julie London playing nurse Dixie McCall at Rampart General Hospital was an equal point. It was star power squared that NBC's "Trauma" couldn't match with their cast of relative unknowns.
In "Chicago Fire," we again have a cast of neophyte actors going on the assumption that they'll turn into big stars like we once saw on "ER." While some of "Chicago Fire's" characters are interesting, the fault may be in having too many actors. Using a large ensemble is inevitable in a show about firefighters, but producer Dick Wolf has to hone in on specific characters so fans become invested.
It's clear, though, that "Chicago Fire" is trying a more deft balance of the "Emergency!" action with deeper politics behind the scenes that all other similar shows have avoided. The show will have to assume the politics of gritty Chicagoan firefighters are enough to compel viewers to watch, because perilous, fateful firefighting scenes aren't new. It really doesn't matter what city those fires are fought in.
- Arts & Entertainment