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Despite familiar tropes, all-star cast keeps Fox's new procedural '9-1-1' urgent

Despite familiar tropes, all-star cast keeps Fox's new procedural '9-1-1' urgent
Connie Britton, Angela Bassett and Peter Krause in Fox's "9-1-1." (Mathieu Young / Fox)

911. What's your emergency?

Help. There are too many television dramas about firefighters, police officers and first responders. I don't think I can take another one, but "9-1-1" premieres Wednesday, only three days into 2018. I'm feeling hopeless.

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Stay calm. We know the genre's been worn threadbare from decades of overuse ("Emergency!," "T.J. Hooker," "Rescue Me," "Chicago Fire/Med/P.D.") and so has your tolerance. But if the new Fox series is any indication, the forecast isn't all that glum.

The pilot episode, the only one available for review, of "9-1-1" infuses an old narrative — first responders rush to save lives in L.A. — with fresh perspective and an all-star cast.

Created by Ryan Murphy, Tim Minear and Brad Falchuk ("The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," "American Horror Story") the hour-long drama initially looks at trauma and response through the eyes of an overworked and empathetic 911 dispatcher, Abby Clark (Connie Britton).

Her experience as the first line of defense is one of necessary detachment yet emotional rigor. At work, she calms nerves and sends help across Los Angeles from a remote call center, yet wonders what happens after the EMTs arrive and those callers who she's just spent several harrowing minutes with abruptly hang up the phone. (The audience, of course, gets to see.)

If only Abby could apply the same sort of support she gives others to herself. But she can't stop her own life from grinding to a halt after a divorce and an all-consuming family illness.

It's through Abby that viewers are ushered into the lives of the other first responders and the public they serve, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever turned on a television that there's more to their vocation than sirens and CPR.

Abby, LAPD officer Athena Grant (Angela Bassett) and fire chief Bobby Nash (Peter Krause) must rely on their own judgment when dealing with the life and death situations of others, but have a harder time mustering that same personal strength when protecting themselves from everyday crises.

Abby's daily, personal emergency is caring for her elderly mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. For Athena, it's trying to hold her family together after her husband (Rockmond Dunbar) reveals a secret that threatens to rip them apart. And for Bobby, the challenge is staying sober and keeping the faith in the face of unrelenting trauma and chaos.

The show's impressive, all-star cast makes all the difference here. At least in the pilot, the actors elevate the premise from a suspenseful, action show to an engrossing drama, while the influence of seasoned veterans Murphy, Minear and Falchuck lends "9-1-1" the gravitas it needs to rise above TV's cabal of conflicted police officers and harried paramedics.

The calls to which they respond take viewers to various regions of the city, from a poolside in Beverly Hills to a housing tract in Winnetka. The emergencies range from disturbing — the fire department struggles to free an abandoned newborn baby from a drain pipe — to near comical: a snake collector becomes prey for her pet constrictor.

There are the usual clichés here — the immigrant family who finds it acceptable to dispose of an unwed, pregnant teen's newborn rather than lose face, the philandering fireman who apparently can land any woman he wants, the jaded cop's distrust of just about everyone. The show, which also stars Oliver Stark, Aisha Hinds and Kenneth Choi, is also heavy on the everyone-has-a-fatal-flaw theme.

But it's Britton's atypical character that promises the most interesting narrative here, even though she has the least to do.

Dispatcher Abby does not engage in shootouts or run into burning buildings, at least not in the pilot anyway. Instead, she orchestrates rescues from afar, through a headset. It's a solitary and thankless position, but lends "9-1-1" a unique vantage point, rescuing it from a genre that can feel as repetitive and flat as a flagging patient's EKG.

'9-1-1'

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Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sexual content and violence)

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