Setting Off an Alarm on a New Season

Already? The 1995-96 television season has only just ended. Yet on Fox, next season begins tonight.

You've heard the sirens, seen the gleaming trucks, read about the soaring overtime pay. Now comes the real story about the Los Angeles Fire Department that no one else had the guts to reveal, truth as "brutally honest" as Fox can make it. In other words . . .

Fire hunks and fire babes.

Driven by relentless action and pulsating bongo music, "L.A. Firefighters" is "ER" with a fire pole, noisily racing toward summer en route to a 1996-97 prime-time season that won't officially start for several months. The ensemble drama--the first arrival among next season's 30 new entertainment series on the four major networks--is getting six Monday night airings before recessing until the fall.

Tonight also brings "The Last Frontier," a Fox comedy series arriving for a six-episode trial or kiss-off, depending on viewer response.

On "L.A. Firefighters," meanwhile, down the pole they come, onto the trucks and speeding into the night, accompanied by that booming, exciting, glamorizing, up-tempo music.

We meet the firefighters of Station 132 as they rush to an arsonist-torched tenement. Outside, Chief Dick Coffee (Brian Smiar) is nervously eyeing the flame-engulfed top floor while on a two-way: "What's the story, Jack?"

Cut to the interior, where Capt. Jack Malloy (Jarrod Emick) and his crew are fighting through this orange holocaust, hoses gushing, pulses pounding.

Malloy: "She's fully involved, Dick! I'll keep my people around just long enough to get the building clear!"

Coffee: "You want backup?"

Malloy: "Not on your life! We're having way too much fun!"

Cut to an apartment in the building where burly, Bible-quoting firefighter J.B. Baker (Brian Leckner) encounters a rotund woman who refuses to budge from her cash-stuffed mattress. Knocking aside the shotgun she aims at him, he heaves the mattress out the window, then forcibly lugs the woman to safety through the flames.

Now to another apartment, where Malloy hands an infant to firefighter Kay Rizzo (Alexandra Hedison) atop a ladder outside the fifth floor, then, with flames lapping at his back, makes an 8-foot leap through the air onto the ladder as it pulls back from the burning building moments before an explosion inside.

And when not action, there's plenty of angst, for most of the characters here are as deeply burdened as brave. The dashing Malloy's comely wife, Laura (Elizabeth Mitchell), resents him spending less time at home than at the firehouse, where decoratively buxom-in-a-tank-top firefighter Erin Coffee (Christine Elise) comes on to him with a powerful smooch. She also has words with her father, Chief Coffee, about his heavy drinking at the bar where a womanizing firefighter, whose wife has left him, makes a racist crack that draws a swing from handsome African American firefighter Ray Grimes (Carlton Wilborn), who has escaped the perils of the inner city only to be bugged by his brother, a thug.

Meanwhile, Erin is just starting to get an earful from the fetching Rizzo about her divorce and the death of her young son when the buzzers sound, followed by the bongos and sirens. Erin: "Here we go again."

And again and again, as a crash victim is trapped in her car, a pet boa is curled around a tree limb and arson investigator Bernie Ramirez (Miguel Sandoval) surprises a perpetrator in the act, setting off a chase, gunfire and more bongos.

Most pleasing about "L.A. Firefighters" are its focus on the job's dangers and its uncommonly respectful depiction of a devout Christian (Baker). Much more pervasive, though, is the hour's overcooked music and melodrama (including an epic cliche of a sequence with Grimes and the racist).

Yet is it accurate? After screening the premiere, a Los Angeles fire chief with 30 years' experience gave his opinion, requesting anonymity while calling the series a joke.

He did find realistic a fireman falling through a roof and the premiere's opening scene showing wallpaper being peeled off by the heat of a fire.

But he found it "glaringly bizarre" that the Fox firefighters never wear required breathing apparatus--a sealed mask and compressed air tank. He also faulted them for sometimes not wearing helmets in the field, a no-no.

The show's fire scenes are "completely unrealistic," he said. And the female firefighters, specifically Erin in her endearing tank top? "You'd never see that," the chief said. "The females in the fire department don't call attention to themselves."

Nor, he added, would two family members like Erin and her father be assigned to the same shift, for fear both could be "taken out" in the same fire. He also criticized the firefighters for declaring a crash victim dead and stopping CPR before the arrival of paramedics, and for boozing it up at a nearby bar after their shift.

"The message is that they handle problems by going to a bar. But when firefighters get off work, most of them go home and go to bed," he said.

As for Malloy making his spectacular leap to safety? "No one would ever try to jump out and catch a ladder like that," the chief said, "because they'd get killed."

Although he doesn't mention it, there's an additional flub in the premiere. "Where the hell's the ambulance?" a firefighter shouts when someone is injured in a huge, episode-ending blaze. More to the point when it comes to realism, where the hell are the TV news choppers?

*

COLD EMBERS. The schmoozing singles of "The Last Frontier" evoke the weary ambience of this past season's frontier in sitcoms.

The theme of this lousy series is bozos and boobs, its setting is Anchorage, Alaska, where the lives of three bachelors flip-flop when a dish from Los Angeles moves into their house and, the program description says, "changes their attitudes about the differences between men and women." If not at home, then at the obligatory tavern where they gather to chew on trivia.

Bill (Anthony Starke) is an architect and the trio's most rational member. Andy (Patrick Labyorteaux) is a fussy Air Force officer and Reed (John Terlessky) is a thudding palooka. An even bigger lox is Reed's younger brother, Matt (David Kriegel), who moved out of the house after getting married but inexplicably has a titanic tizzy when his former digs go to newcomer Kate (Jessica Tuck).

"The Last Frontier" occasionally slips in some sly humor, but in a way that argues against the use of canned guffaws, whether a laugh track or audience laughter that's been sweetened. At its very best, "The Last Frontier" succeeds modestly.

Yet one's response to some of its most fragile jokes might be different were they allowed to breathe on their own instead of being overwhelmed by loud bellowing applied equally to every punch line, no matter how yucky.

* "The Last Frontier" premieres at 8:30 tonight, followed at 9 by "L.A. Firefighters" on Fox (Channel 11). "L.A. Firefighters" is scheduled on Sundays at 7 p.m. in the fall.

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