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9-1-1 takes the case-of-the-week show and cranks it up to 500

Babies in walls. Snakes. Connie Britton staring into the middle distance. And that’s just episode one.

Peter Krause stars as a firefighter. A snake stars as a snake.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 31, 2017, through January 6, 2018, is the pilot for 9-1-1, Fox’s new drama about emergency first responders.

9-1-1, the new Fox drama that debuted January 3 with strong ratings, approaches the Ryan Murphy event horizon.

Murphy, one of the most powerful producers in television, has become known for his ridiculous plot twists and boundary-pushing willingness to take stories just about anywhere — sometimes to his detriment. That makes it all the more surprising that he would co-create (with longtime collaborators Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear) what amounts to a network procedural about emergency first responders.

But watch the pilot of 9-1-1, and the attraction of Team Murphy to this material becomes clearer. Instead of just one case of the week, Murphy, Falchuk, and Minear include several, all of which are as nuts as possible but also drawn from real events.

The old knock against Murphy was that he couldn’t stay focused on a single storyline for a whole season. He would endlessly reboot shows like American Horror Story, sometimes from episode to episode, even though they ostensibly reset their stories with brand new characters and situations in every season. But 9-1-1 amplifies that approach even more. It’s a Ryan Murphy series that switches storylines with every scene. And, to be honest, it kinda works?

9-1-1 traps a baby in a wall and a woman’s neck in a snake, and that’s just in the first two-thirds of its running time

9-1-1’s cast is full of incredible actors you’ll know from elsewhere, including Krause (center), Aisha Hinds (third from left) and Angela Bassett (right).

The moment when I knew I was going to watch an embarrassing amount of 9-1-1 came when a firefighter raised an axe to break open a wall, and Peter Krause, playing fellow firefighter Bobby Nash (what a great firefighter name!), barked, “Stop! Did you even stop to consider that you might hit a baby!”

Now, to be fair to the show, Bobby doesn’t believe that most walls contain babies. He’s become convinced that a faint cry he can hear behind the wall (after a 911 caller reports hearing said faint cry) is a prematurely born infant who’s been flushed down the toilet and is now stuck inside the pipes of an apartment building — something that not only apparently can happen but actually has.

Even though this has actually happened, something about the hyper-kinetic presentation of such a horrifying situation ramps it all the way up until it approaches a wild Venn diagram intersection between horror and camp. It’s completely ludicrous, but the commitment on display from everybody involved, from the writers to the actors to director Bradley Buecker, sells it in such a way that it becomes hard to look away from.

As more and more of the show’s characters become involved in the story, racing through the apartment complex to make sure nobody flushes their toilet and drowns the child, 9-1-1’s pilot embraces the kind of tonal whiplash that might be the hallmark of Murphy’s work. This is a deeply serious situation, certainly, but it’s also treated with such heightened emotion that you can’t help but laugh for a moment, before letting yourself be sucked in.

Once the baby scene concludes, the show immediately dives into a story about a young woman who’s being suffocated by one of her snakes, before concluding with a more standard home invasion setup, meant to ping our heartstrings as the series’ central 911 dispatcher (played by Connie Britton) attempts to keep a little girl alive after robbers break into her home. The sequences reminded me of an even more revved-up ER, which would famously tell entire stories about patients who came in to the hospital in need of medical treatment in the space of about five minutes.

But where ER was able to confine its medical action to the titular location in most episodes, 9-1-1 is constantly jetting all over Los Angeles, to the degree that it can feel like Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and Chicago PD have been collapsed into the same series, with a framing device featuring Connie Britton answering the phone. It’s amazing the show doesn’t feel more overheated than it already does.

But maybe that’s the true promise of 9-1-1: Tune in for a surprisingly top-flight cast (which also includes Angela Bassett!); stick around for what feel like entire episodes of television collapsed into individual scenes or sequences. It’s almost a return to Murphy’s roots, when his first big hit, FX’s Nip/Tuck, took the standard medical case-of-the-week show and wedded it to a bacchanal of flesh and gore, itself hitched to a satirical wink about America’s obsession with youth and beauty.

The show’s emergency stories are wildly entertaining. But its interpersonal stories need work.

The story featuring Connie Britton’s 9-1-1 dispatcher and her mother is the one interpersonal story that sort of works.

When Nip/Tuck was at its height in its first two seasons, it centered on the unusual relationship between Christian Troy and Sean McNamara, two plastic surgeons whose medical practice evolved into a sort of twisted brotherhood. (Both men seemed to be in love with Sean’s wife, Julia.) When the show began to fall apart, it was because the series struggled to find ways to tell stories outside of that basic interpersonal setup.

And right away, 9-1-1 establishes interpersonal stories for all of its characters that feel far more labored than any of the actual emergency situations the characters attempt to resolve. In particular, Bassett’s character, a police sergeant named Athena Grant, is dropped into the middle of a story in which her husband — with whom she has two children — comes out to their kids as gay, and his semi-closeting is revealed to have been part of some sort of long-term arrangement between the two spouses.

The series attempts to port its overheated emergency stories into its personal scenes, with huge levels of melodrama, but it doesn’t work very well. The closest any of the interpersonal stories comes to success is when Britton’s character, Abby, attempts to deal with her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, mostly because her story is so much quieter than everything surrounding it.

Following the personal lives of the cops and firefighters at the center of shows like this has been happening since at least 1981’s game-changing Hill Street Blues, but such shows generally require a deft touch to balance the life-and-death stakes of an emergency situation against the smaller (but still important) stakes of the character stories. 9-1-1 doesn’t have that touch just yet, but everything else about its pilot made me realize that I would watch several more episodes just to see if the show can find it.

9-1-1 airs Wednesdays at 9 pm Eastern on Fox. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

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