Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
By my count, there are over a dozen scripted, spin-off TV shows on network television. If you include the basic cable networks, then the count increases to almost 20, scripted, spin-off shows. A scripted spin-off is taking an established idea or a hit program and basically copying it with a new cast and sometimes a new location. It’s endemic of the lack of original ideas in Hollywood and on network TV. It’s lazy and repetitive of the networks. Most of the spin-offs are shows about cops, lawyers, or law enforcement of some kind, as well as doctors, first responders or medical personnel of some type. This series is yet another of those kinds or types. I would typically dismiss a TV show like this, as a lazy spin-off, if not for one aspect.
This series was created by Ryan Murphy and his writing and producing partners, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear. Murphy has become a very famous Hollywood producer and his fame comes a lot from his programs not following trends or being lazy copying. He’s known for his more bold and genre-bending projects. A lot of it has come from his championing of LGBTQ themes and characters, especially in defining shows like Glee (2009), The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018) and Pose (2018). All of which have won Emmy Awards, often with LGBTQ characters in the lead and forefront of the storytelling. Now, thanks to progress in network TV and progressive producers like Shonda Rhimes and Greg Berlanti, LGBTQ characters have been sprinkled into many shows, but it’s still rare to find a LGBTQ character in the lead or be right in the forefront. With this series, Murphy challenges that.
Rob Lowe (Parks and Recreation and Brothers & Sisters) stars as Owen Strand, a firefighter captain who worked for the New York Fire Department for over 20 years. He was one of the first responders on September 11. He was there at Ground Zero. As a result, he has developed lung cancer with which he’s only now being diagnosed. It’s odd that he would be totally healthy for nearly 20 years and is only now starting to develop symptoms and illness, but one has to suspend disbelief for that.
Strangely, he’s approached to be the head of a firehouse in Austin, Texas, which seems odd for several reasons. The Justice Department says Texas firehouses need to diversify, so they go to Owen. It’s odd because Owen is a middle-aged white guy. Even though he’s dedicated to hiring a diverse group of firefighters, diverse in their racial, religious, ethnic and sexual orientation backgrounds, the make-up of one firehouse in Austin wouldn’t solve a problem that would require the Justice Department. It’s a highly contrived setup to get a diverse group of people together when just having a diverse group at the outset would’ve sufficed. The way that it’s premised here has this series open to attacks by those who hate the idea of Affirmative Action.
Ronen Rubinstein (Dead of Summer) plays TK Strand, the son of Owen who is also a firefighter. He worked in the same firehouse as his father in New York, but he goes with his dad to Austin when his dad gets this new job there. TK is a recovering drug addict who recently tried to commit suicide. The reason he did so was because his almost fiancé dumped him on the night TK was going to propose. It’s meant to initially be a surprise, but TK is gay. When he gets to Austin, he meets a police officer named Carlos, played by Rafael Silva. Carlos is also gay. The two obviously hook-up and have to deal with an on-and-off relationship with TK having the cliché fear of commitment, which also isn’t much intriguing.
When Murphy created the series from which this one spun off, it was about Los Angeles firefighters and first responders there. I thought he would have a gay firefighter in the lead or forefront for that show, but he waited to do it here. Unfortunately, he gave Rhimes a chance to beat him to the punch. Her spin-off series Station 19 (2018) aired after the first season of 911 (2018) and included a gay firefighter. We’ll see what Murphy and his writers do with it. Hopefully, Murphy and his team won’t simply make TK and Carlos’ relationship a will-they-or-won’t-they scenario week-to-week. Hopefully, more will come of it.
Brian Michael Smith (The L Word: Generation Q and Queen Sugar) plays Paul Strickland, a firefighter who seemed to be an extraordinary firefighter from Chicago. It’s immediately pointed out that he’s transgender. Yes, he seems to magically determine an arsonist by simply looking at him. But his getting hired here at Ladder 126 in Austin is specifically because he’s transgender. It would be great if the series addressed issues that transgender people face in jobs, even government jobs, or simply the struggles of trans-people in day-to-day life. Unfortunately, Paul’s life is also mostly sidelined or his transgender identity is a punchline.
Hopefully, Paul’s presence as a trans character isn’t limited to merely being window-dressing. As the show moves forward, that could change and the writers could have opportunities to dig deeper into these characters specifically. I’m not as confident, given that the show has thus far leaned more on its white, cisgender male characters.
Jim Parrack (The Deuce and True Blood) co-stars as Judd Ryder, one of those aforementioned, white, cisgender male characters. Other than Owen, the series leans on him the most. He opens the series as being the lone survivor of a plant explosion, which killed all the firefighters in his squad except him. He now suffers from PTSD and emotional problems. Watching him deal with those issues, especially as he goes to therapy, is an admirable thing to depict here in this series. Given that we’ve had shows like Station 19 and Chicago Fire recently, what Judd is experiencing isn’t new ground.
Even when it comes to Owen, an older firefighter dealing with an illness was already explored in Station 19. A younger firefighter dealing with an illness or disorder was already explored in Chicago Fire. When you have an actor and star like Rob Lowe, you have to give him stuff to do. Giving him cancer related to 9/11 is an important issue for his character, but right now the only thing is that Owen is keeping it a secret from most of everyone, including his son, TK. That’s the obvious route and not the most interesting.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Mondays at 8PM on FOX.