My TV

05 November 2014

Chicago’s First Responders

By // TV

chicagopdfire__140411152959It’s nearly impossible to watch Chicago Fire or Chicago PD without also following the other. The two NBC action-dramas from super-producer Dick Wolf are linked so closely that to use the usual expression that they “exist in the same universe” is like saying that spaghetti and meatballs are both foods.

PD began a season and a half into Fire’s run with a pilot episode that in no way resembled a pilot episode. All the exposition and basic character development you expect from a series premiere was dispensed with in the preceding 35 episodes of Fire. One of PD’s key characters Detective Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda) had appeared in no fewer than 14 episodes of Fire by January 2014, with Hank Voight (Jason Beghe) and Jay Halstead (Jesse Lee Soffer) right behind him, anchoring full 9 and 6-episode arcs on Fire respectively. Sophia Bush and Elias Koteas each also stopped by for a pre-PD character intro, leaving only Patrick John Flueger’s rookie Adam Ruzak still in need of introduction in the PD pilot. Those characters make up the core Intelligence team, a department we witnessed being established in Fire so that it was already fully functioning in time for new show.

Spinoffs often use “backdoor pilots” to tease the new show to the built-in audience of the original (see Addison’s one-off trip to LA in Grey’s season three) but it’s usually a single episode diversion with the bulk of the world-building left for the first few episodes of the actual spinoff. But Wolf and his team used a full-integration model to build his two shows into a full world. The effect is strangely fascinating, like seeing Hamlet for the first time after seeing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead; the bit parts and cameos are characters we know who have full lives happening behind the scenes. Laroyce Hawkins’ beat cop Kevin Atwater was woven into the fabric of Wolf’s fictionalized Chicago as a first responder in Fire before PD and his partner Kim Burgess (Marina Squerciati) continues to crossover regularly (Atwater has since been promoted to Intelligence and replaced with Brian Geraghty’s Sean Roman who has a more interesting dynamic with Burgess). Most emergencies require multiple 911 services so appearances by the Fire paramedics (or, more rarely, the firefighters themselves) at a PD crime scene is, at this point, expected almost every single week, as is an appearance by the PD beat cops (and occasionally detectives) at a rescue call on Fire (the hospital workers are also fairly consistent characters, giving credence to the rumours of an impending third show called Chicago MD). Add in the occasional cross-show romantic entanglement (did anybody buy Lindsay with Severide?) and the firefighter/detective sister/brother duo of Gabby and Antonio Dawson and the shows are more thoroughly and frequently entwined than any other two TV shows I can think of.

When PD first began, anyone who hadn’t seen every episode of Fire had no chance of following (who the hell was this Voight guy? Why is no one bothering to explain anything?) but with PD in season two, both shows firmly established and no new characters to introduce, the crossovers now serve mostly as a reward for watching both shows. You could, theoretically, commit to just watching one and, at this point, you could likely follow most of the plot- with such disparate tones, it almost seems as if Fire and PD are designed for different audiences- but you’d be confused a lot of the time (why does Mouch think he can get parking tickets “taken care of”? “Who is this guy helping Casey investigate his brother in law no questions asked?”) and the crossover cameos are half the fun. Just one example: after one of PD‘s many shootouts, Fire fans get to anticipate the arrival of paramedic Peter Mills (Charlie Barnett), knowing he’s still adjusting to this new position after being kicked off Squad for medical reasons. If you’re just watching PD, Barnett looks like a day player with an oddly thorough sense of his character, but Fire fans know exactly who he is (and why Antonio’s giving him a bit of a look- Mills used to date his sister).

Without the crossovers, the Chicago shows are just two very different action-dramas not all that notable in the larger television landscape. With the crossovers, their world seems richer and more complex and thus both shows are better for having each other.

That said, I find it genuinely surprising that they share enough of their audience to pull such frequent crossovers off. Yes, they’re both melodramatic with intense action sequences starring beautiful people and oldschool dramatic mood music. And neither has particularly high production values (though PD is definitely shot with far more care than the laughably low-rent Fire). But they’re completely different shows that, I would assume, appeal to completely different audiences.

Chicago Fire is deliciously fun. It’s incredibly addictive, surprisingly funny and full of compelling friendships and good relationship drama. But probably most importantly, every single character is worth rooting for. Well, I’m not really all that into the chief, but everyone else is utterly winning from comic relief sidekicks like Mouch and Otis (that Yuri Sardarov is just so damn charming) who occasionally get a kicker of a serious storyline, to the eternally loveable but also wonderfully frustrating Christopher Herrmann (who doesn’t love David Eigenberg?), to the strapping leading men. Chicago Fire has the one ensemble on TV I universally like (or at least don’t seriously dislike, chief), which is why they can pull off ridiculous things like cliffhangers where literally every single character is in jeopardy. The end of season two was a little bit much but the season one finale in the prison was some of the highest stakes TV I’ve seen.

Perhaps the biggest difference (other than a sense of humour) between Fire and PD is that Fire is relentlessly about good guys. Both shows are about first responders, so there’s your basic hero situation right up front, but firefighters have a pure “I’m here to save your life” vibe and fewer chances for corruption compared to the police (and especially the police in PD; yikes). But, even without that, Chicago Fire is about heroes while Chicago PD is more about antiheroes. Lieutenant Kelly Severide is the darkest main character on Fire and, even at his lowest, he’s barely even Karev-level dark. He’s kind of an idiot about women (unless they’re Leslie Shay, the one person to ever really get Kelly) and he takes unnecessary risks on the job (and has recently developed something of a drinking problem; whatever, he’s grieving!) but Severide is hero through-and-through (and played by Lady Gaga’s crazy handsome boyfriend Taylor Kinney who is incredibly likeable even if he’s not a great actor). The only reason he’s the “dark” one is because the show’s other leading man is so “good” he could have been created in a lab. After years being irritating on House, Jesse Spencer is somehow perfect as the somehow-not-annoyingly perfect Lieutenant Matt Casey. He’s unflaggingly principled (we’ll come back to this point in a moment), gracious, mature, and just forceful enough to get the job done and stand up for the little guy without being the least big aggressive. It’s a credit to Spencer and the writing (good call making him decently funny!) that I don’t hate Matt (perfect is so boring) but I can tell you exactly the reason I not only don’t hate him but actually really like him- Gabriela Dawson.

Gabriela Motherfucking Dawson

Gabriela Motherfucking Dawson

Gabby Dawson is Awesome, you guys. Unlike her dull-as-rocks brother Antonio (of PD non-fame), Gabby is feisty and funny and way too intense, which is a completely humanizing and totally believable flaw that makes her Fire’s most fully realized character. And, unlike, say, Sophia Bush (PD’s Erin Lindsay), the crazy beautiful Monica Raymund carries her crazy beautiful-ness into the firehouse and never for a second looks like an actress pretending to be a firefighter (or paramedic, which she is for the first half of the series so far). Dawson (it’s telling that she’s “Dawson” and her brother is “Antonio”) is such a bad-ass that, I swear to god, the reason I like Matt Casey is that she told me to. She loved him, and she’s the best, so I took her word for it. In Chicago Fire’s first season, the Casey reflected in Dawson’s eyes was the Casey we learned to see, and it wasn’t long before I loved him too. I should also point out that the pacing of their relationship has been perfect and I’m especially loving (spoiler alert) the refreshing angle it’s taken on this season as she becomes the Candidate on his truck and decides to put her career ahead of their relationship knowing she can’t marry him if they work at the same house.

What’s holding Chicago Fire back this season- despite mostly good storytelling so far (another, bigger, spoiler alert)– is that the season premiere twist destroyed my two favourite relationships on the show. I’m liking Kara Killmer as new paramedic Sylvie Brett but I loved Shay and her death left a big hole in the show where her friendships with Dawson and, especially, Severide used to be (which at least Kelly is addressing; Gabby’s apparently already over it). The strong female friendship in a male-dominated ensemble was one of the key balancing elements in the first two seasons of Fire, especially considering the lighter tone and relationship-heavy side of the show seem to attract a larger female audience than PD (also, points to Fire for featuring a complex and sexual angst-free gay character!). But it was the Kelly-Leslie friendship I really loved. It was so casually intimate, so unspoken, so revealing of their personal psychologies, and it gave two highly self-sufficient characters a personal tie that kept them grounded and human. Having Shay in his life (and sharing his house) gave Severide his unconscious excuse to avoid looking for real connection with the women he dated. She was, in a lot of ways, the key to his character and now she’s gone, leaving the show with a leading man who may be problematically enigmatic and detached.

Luckily, Kelly Severide could never be as problematically enigmatic and detached as Hank Voight. The PD writers have put a lot of effort into softening him over the last year, and (in a weird reversal of the Casey situation) I think putting hyper-principled (or so we’re told) Antonio Dawson on his side was supposed to be an endorsement for his “good”-ness but basing an entire series around Hank Voight was probably a bad idea. Or maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know. I don’t like antiheroes, but I acknowledge that’s a minority opinion these days. I don’t need my heroes to be Casey-like good guys (I’d honestly prefer that they not be) but I think, basically, human beings are trying to be better. That’s what we do, we try to be better; we aim for good. I therefore think that realistic characters, generally, do the same. No matter how many pregnant girls he saves or how many street kids he takes in, the reason I will never love Chicago PD as much as I love Chicago Fire is that I honestly don’t believe that Hank Voight is a good guy, nor do I think he’s really trying to be.

Part of that is that his supporting cast isn’t strong enough to really vouch for him. I like Burgess a lot and Ruzek is growing on me but Antonio just doesn’t work (they’re clearly getting him divorced this season to free him up for a romance and maybe make him more interesting; we’ll see if it works) and Halstead is crazy boring. Lindsay has her moments (a child of the OTH era, I will always love Sophia Bush) but I flip flop between investing in and laughing at her dramatic backstory (Brooke Davis made sense but Erin Lindsay looks less like a cop than Zoe Hart does a doctor). In Fire, leading man duties are divided between Severide and Casey (a little from column A, a little from column B in terms of hero archetypes, just in case one of them’s not your cup of tea) with the unit supervisor (the chief, in my opinion the show’s weakest character) taking a supporting role. In PD it’s all on Voight; the other characters are all quite specifically underlings.

Maybe there are people who only watch PD so know Voight as a strong, silent type with a heart of gold who runs his unit with integrity, even if it’s against the rules (aka runs his unit like no police unit that could ever exist in real life, ever). But, as I established earlier, there can’t be that many people who just watch PD, so that’s not really an option. If, for some reason, those people do exist and it somehow doesn’t bother them that they don’t know paramedic Peter Mills when everybody else clearly does, I’m willing to bet it’s an entirely different demographic than the Fire fans (who are, let’s face it, watching PD for the Peter Mills cameos and because sometimes Severide shows up to kiss Sophia Bush). PD is really dark, with very few laugh lines and pretty gruesome crimes. In fact, the SVU crossover they did last year made more tonal sense to me than the Fire crossovers (except during last year’s excellent two-parter where a bomb went off on Fire and the investigation went down on PD- that was just cool). PD is really violent with a cooler colour palette, more procedural elements, fewer well-explored relationships (romantic or otherwise) and much less emphasis on hot dudes; I’m therefore going to assume its standalone audience is mostly men, attracted to the strong antihero and the “end justifies the means” badassery of PD and less interested in Fire (I’ve never met a male Chicago Fire fan; the marketing really went after the Grey’s demo).

What’s interesting is that if there is this smaller demographic of (mostly male, if my superficial guessing proves correct) viewers who prefer PD for its darker tone and therefore don’t watch its counterpart, they’re seeing a far lighter protagonist than the Fire fans do (like a fictionalized version of the Big Brother broadcast vs. live feeds debate). PD would have its viewers believe in Voight’s fundamental goodness but he was so strongly established on Fire as a capital B Bad Dude that I doubt fans who watch both shows will ever buy him as anything else (thus preventing them from really investing in his unit the way they have Firehouse 51, keeping Fire the more popular show). Voight’s introduction in a surprisingly long 9-episode arc on Fire was brutal, setting him up as the dirtiest of dirty cops out to literally murder Casey (not even a sketchier character, Casey!) because he refused to compromise his ethics and lie to protect Voight’s criminal son. Yeah, he was doing it to protect his son, but the Fire writers came down hard on Voight, drawing concrete ethical lines and placing him so far on the opposite side of them from our hero Casey (endorsed by Dawson!) that there’s really no coming back unless he somehow becomes 50 times more interesting and Jason Beghe somehow stops looking and sounding completely evil and he manages to pull off that strange Chuck Bass effect where the whole audience collectively decides to ignore whole swathes of his character history in order to root for him because Blair loves him and that’s what matters.

Somehow I don’t see that happening.

PD will always be about an antihero. It will always be darker and sadder and harder to connect with. And, because of that, there may be some people who like it more. I will never be one of those people. I’ll happily live in Dick Wolf’s multi-tonal fictional Chicago but if I ever have to call 911, I’m asking for the fire department.

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