9-1-1 Becomes a Franchise with Lone Star Version

It only makes sense that FOX’s hit “9-1-1” would produce a spin-off. After all, a world in which three shows that start with the word “Chicago” (“Fire,” “Med,” “P.D.”) can become one of the most high-rated blocks of TV, why not try to repeat the success of an incredibly easy-to-replicate formula? If you’re unfamiliar, “9-1-1” is an old-fashioned medical/cop drama structure with a modern sheen thanks to the producing team of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear, the hardest working guys in TV. Crazy calls to the emergency number that you learn in elementary school are intercut with soapy details about the personal lives of the men and women who answer those calls. Sometimes the calls result in tragedy and anchor an episode, but they’re often just connective tissue between what is more of a soap opera than other shows like this. The Murphy/Falchuk brand is one of high emotion, and that fits with the backdrop stories of people in enough danger to call for help. So why not spin it off?

Welcome to “9-1-1: Lone Star,” a show with basically the same exact structure but new characters and a new location. The almost disturbingly youthful Rob Lowe stars as Owen Strand, a New York firefighter who rebuilt his firehouse after the tragedy of 9/11. In the premiere, we learn that Strand has cancer, likely because of what he experienced on that horrible day. Yes, before the first commercial break, the team behind “9-1-1: Lone Star” have plucked the chords of 9/11 and cancer. There’s something almost impressively brazen about the way these shows use melodrama, embracing it like old-fashioned soap opera writers. This isn't just a drama, this is high melodrama. And did I mention that Strand has a son (Ronen Rubinstein) who tries to kill himself after his boyfriend not only rejects his marriage proposal but reveals he’s been cheating on him?

T.K. and Owen end up taking their impressive baggage to Austin when a horrible tragedy kills the majority of a firehouse there. Given what Strand accomplished after 9/11, he knows how to rebuild a community reeling from grief. It also allows T.K. and Owen to be the fish out of water in Texas, the northerners who bring their fancy coffee machines and hair care routines to a land of simple men who drink coffee black and wear cowboy hats (although the writers choose Austin, allowing for some progressive and “hipster” scenery that makes the potential city-vs-country dynamic softer). They’re not the only ones pushing the boundaries in a historically conservative state. Natacha Karam plays a Muslim risk-taker who comes from Miami to the Lone Star State; Brian Michael Smith plays a trans firefighter who is quickly accepted by Strand in a move that feels pretty progressive for a show like this one. Finally, Jim Parrack offers at least a bit of Texan flavor as the surviving member of the original house while Liv Tyler plays the most interesting character so far, a local EMS worker who is obsessed with finding her missing sister.

Missing sisters, hidden cancer diagnoses, PTSD, a suicide attempt—if this sounds like a lot for a two-night premiere, that’s kind of the point. The “9-1-1” shows almost pummel you into enjoying them. They rarely slow down, throwing a baby into a tree and nearly killing a man with a ghost pepper in between all of this character melodrama. Is it great TV? Maybe not, but it’s sure easy to watch, a quick hour to distract you from your problems mostly through sheer adrenaline. It’s hard to believe anyone who likes the original iteration won’t take to this one. Lowe and Tyler are more than charming enough and the supporting cast is strong too, but they’re really just cogs in the grand machine of escapist television. It’s kind of ironic that the show starts with an arc about people replacing other emergency workers because everything here feels so disposable in terms of character. Just plug in a few familiar faces and hit execute on the formula. It’s hard to believe “9-1-1: Lone Star” will be the end of this franchise. I’m already prepping for “9-1-1: Windy City.”

Two episodes screened for review.

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Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also the Editor of Magill's Cinema Annual, a writer for The New York Times, Vulture, The AV Club, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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