CHICAGO FIRE – **1/2 (out of ****)
NASHVILLE – *** (out of ****)
The first question you need to ask yourself as you prepare to create an hour long drama is “Where does my main character work?” Real people spend about 40 percent of their lives at work, but TV characters, particularly in dramas could spend anywhere from 90-100 percent of their screen time at their job. This why almost all dramas are about cops or take place in hospitals. These are both settings that are rife with drama, even in real life, much less if you, as a writer, are given the ability to exaggerate and dramatize. You can set your comedy in a paper company, but a drama set there would be painful to watch.
Next, you have to decide if the main character is going to be a building or a person. If it’s a building, then the job is the most important part of the show. The characters are interchangeable. They are cast and recast season after season. We don’t know much about their personal lives. If the main character is a real human being (more and more rare on network television), then we get to know things like personal details and family members. Storylines will not always be spun from directly where they work. Not necessarily as a rule, but generally speaking, Building shows tend to be fluffier, as their one-and-done storyline approach makes it hard to scratch below the surface, but if you miss an episode, it’s no big deal. Audiences will become more attached to the characters of a Human show, but if they miss an episode or six, there is a chance they might be a little lost, and it may not be worth trying to catch up.
Chicago Fire and Nashville have seemingly very little in common, aside from the fact that they are both hour-long dramas. But, having the inherently interesting backgrounds of a fire station and the world of country music, respectively, automatically gives them a wealth of stories to pull from. It’s hard to believe that these weren’t already premises for shows. Although figuring out your background is incredibly important, it’s not the entire battle. Now, both shows need to decide how they’re going to handle it. Are they going to rest on the laurels and just let the premise provide them with easy stories, or are going to take advantage of their sweet position and take their premise Next Level. Let’s find out together, shall we?
We can’t find out together. I’ve already watched the shows. And maybe it’s because of the struggles I’ve already gone through this fall season, but I didn’t have the worst time ever. One show, however, shined above the other because it did a better job taking advantage of its sweet position.
Chicago Fire is having a little bit of a hard time trying to figure out what show it wants to be, something that is common, and therefore a little forgivable, in a pilot. It definitely doesn’t cover up the fact that it wants the Building show fans, making the promise that each week there will be some big fire to put out, and there will be a couple of reasons why this fire is different than all of the other fires in all of the other examples. (Example: Episode 4 they will rescue an Japanese baby trapped in a burning house, which is different than episode 3, where they rescued a Chinese baby.) Fire is exciting. Firemen lead exciting lives. This is definitely enough to get your one-and-doners. The schizophrenia, however, continues in the scenes that surround the fires.
Someone at Chicago Fire might just have said “Hey, let’s make this show good, too.” After being booed for six hours straight, this idiot creator then explained what he meant. “If people watch this just for the fires, we might be able to trick them into caring for the characters, too. That way it means more when one of them dies, or two of them fuck.” This is all true, Creatorman, and I commend you for bringing this up to the board. The thing is, we can’t see you trying to do all that. You actually have to do it without us noticing.
There are some things in here that are lame, but not excruciating. One of the more veteran firefighters reads a newspaper as the fire truck he’s sitting in barrels towards a fire. Everyone is screaming and freaking, but he’s got his paper to read. OK, now we know his role. It’s not embarrassing, but it’s not brilliant either. The show has bigger fuck-ups as it goes on. The two main characters, Blonde and Brunette, don’t like each other. Blonde makes dinner for all of the men at the station. Brunette goes in to eat, sees that Blonde cooked it, and turns his nose up at it, instead opting for an apple. Later, when Blonde proves himself to Brunette, Brunette makes a point to go into the fridge where Blonde’s leftovers are, and make himself a plate. These are the kind of cringeworthy moments that make you question what’s acceptable in a pilot. The problem is that there’s not a lot of signs that this is going to get better as the show goes on.
That doesn’t mean that Chicago Fire is without a place. It’s possible that, if you were to show it to someone who exclusively watches CSI and shit like that, Chicago Fire could serve as a stepping stone to other, better shows like Homeland and Mad Men, shows that survive on their balance of work and home life. The lack of action may be too much for CSI people to handle without a jump in the middle. I know that sounds condescending and rude but, let’s be honest: your parents are idiots.
Nashville, on the other hand, has all of the action you need, while not forcing itself to stay strictly within the realm of country music and be just a Building show. First of all, let’s get the Building right, or at least seem to be right, as I have no idea about how the world of country music works. What I do know is what it sounds like, and Nashville provides country music that sounds just like country music, which means it’s able to avoid the Studio 60 awfulness that was those awful skits. Sure, it’s probably harder to write an actually funny skit than it is to write a country song that sounds like a country song, but if it’s that hard to write a skit, don’t do it. Don’t even try. Find a new job.
Nashville has the same jobs that all of other pilots do: introduce a billion characters, and do it in a quick and dirty way that doesn’t seem quick. How do you do that? Make it dirty. A lot of times, writers want their show to be interesting, but they don’t want to do it at the sake of their character’s likability. Likeable is fun; interesting is better. In just the first episode, we see co-headliner Connie Britton, who plays the veteran star on her way out, have a diva-like breakdown. Even though she apologizes for it, which shows self-awareness, it still shows us she’s capable of sucking. Our other co-headliner, Hayden Panettiere, sleeps with two dudes in this episode alone, both for business reasons. In the meantime, we have the brilliant, traitorous songwriter, the new-to-the-job, fuck-the-veterans label exec, the bored husband, and the meth head mom, and the sleazy boyfriend. All of these characters are introduced rapid fire, but it’s done as if you’re meeting people at a party you want to be at, as opposed to one you’re forced to be at, filled with people you find terribly boring. The only people that don’t fit into this category, the young poet, and the guitar player who convinces her to sing her poetry to music, create good enough country music to elevate their pedestrian storyline. That’s right. I said it. Good enough country music.
There’s nothing one-and-done about this show and, sure, that means that the ratings may only subscribe to the law of diminishing returns. But it’s so soapy, and has so many things going on, that it has the distinct advantage of allowing you to simply ignore scenes or plotlines that you either don’t understand or don’t care about. I assure you, there will be things that you don’t care about, but it’s not so complicated that there will be anything you don’t understand, especially with even the most mediocre of “previously on”s. None of it’s particularly great, and none of it probably ever will be. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. I don’t understand how anyone can watch auto racing, but if you promise me enough car crashes, what the hell? I’ll tune in as often as I can.