Where are the good firefighting shows?

23:16, Jul 09 2013

There are a dozen police drama variants, ranging from unwatchable to stellar, on television right now. At least a dozen - probably twice that by the time you count shows like Person of Interest, which are only tangentially connected to the flock of procedurals that dominate drama schedules the world over.

Yet, in my lifetime, I can only think of two decent firefighting shows: London's Burning (which ran from 1988 to 2002 in the UK) and Rescue Me (which ran from 2004 to 2011 in the US). Sure, there was also Third Watch, but that split its time between police, fire brigade and paramedics, so technically it doesn't count.

So why are firefighting shows outnumbered by police dramas so heavily? I have two theories.

First, I don't think people particularly like watching shows about fire. Unlike crime shows, where we get to see the hero take down bad guys we recognise from news reports, and stories which (try to) reinforce our belief in law enforcement, fire is a somewhat unknown element. Most of us don't understand how it works, and that scares us.

Second, fire isn't a character. Cop shows - most drama shows, in fact - work because there is an antagonist, a character who comes into conflict with our main characters, a bad guy for the detectives to hunt down and put behind bars. Firefighting shows, meanwhile, have a force of nature as the baddie. If you're making a firefighting show, you're essentially making a drama show where your characters are placed in dangerous situations. At which point, you may as well make a more interesting drama series where the time spent on fire scenes is put to better use*.

I also suspect it's hard to make a believable firefighting show on a TV budget. But since I don't know how much it costs to replicate a burning building, then put cameras inside it without killing anyone, I'm not going down this route.


Anyway, it was into this train of thought that Chicago Fire arrived last night on TV3 (9.30pm). I try to go into most new shows with an open mind, but I couldn't help taking a swag of preconceptions into the first episode of the newest firefighting show on the schedule. As a result, I thought it was a pretty unrewarding hour of television.

Chicago Fire is essentially a firefighting procedural produced by Dick Wolf - the man behind the Law & Order franchise - but created by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. Jesse Spencer (Chase on House, Billy on Neighbours) and Taylor Kinney (formerly a paramedic on Trauma) work out of Chicago Firehouse 51. They come into conflict in the premiere after the death of a team member. And now you're caught up.

Even forgiving the problems outlined above (subject matter, lack of protagonist, budget), this is still a weak attempt at the genre, full of bland characters who are mostly lifted straight from other procedural shows. For good measure, the characters brought along a few of their most tired storylines with them.

I'm not sure Spencer is able to carry a show either. He was fine as a third or fourth banana on House MD, but he doesn't have the personality or charisma to carry whole episodes or story arcs - let alone an entire series.

There are a few exciting moments. Firefighting scenes are exciting and terrifying to watch, helped by the quiet respect we have for those in this line of work. Some of the interplay between the various firefighters, rescue squadsters and paramedics is a bit of a laugh, too. Like many ensemble shows, it's likely the best members of the cast will be those who don't get much screen time, at least in the first few episodes.

But it's not a great show - it's not really a bad show either, just average. And it makes me wonder why there aren't more quality shows about firefighters.

What did you think of Chicago Fire last night? And why do you think firefighting shows are so rare?

(*) I should say that I have utmost respect for firefighters, as a profession. I think every single one is a hero, and that line of work is worthy of documentation and/or celebration on television in some form. I'm just questioning the sense in making a scripted show about firefighting.

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