Is it too much to hope that the premiere episode of L.A. Firefighters used up all the cliches about battling smoky conflagrations and can now get on with being a good show? I’m trying to be understanding here. Maybe the creators of this jumpy drama felt it necessary to pull in viewers by showing us, in the debut’s opening seconds, a cutie-wootie widdle baby in its crib, all wide-eyed innocence as flames begin melting the Humpty-Dumpty-patterned nursery-room wallpaper. Maybe the folks who want L.A. Firefighters to be ER with hoses decided they just had to introduce its ER-grad star, Christine Elise, by having her wear a clingy sleeveless T-shirt that showcased her well-defined…um, biceps. And maybe the Firefighters writers were just getting it out of their systems when, less than five minutes into the show, they had a fireman in the center of a red-hot apartment building joke, ”Is it me, or do you smell something burning?” That ain’t all I smell.
The team is led by Capt. Jack Malloy, played by Jarrod Emick, who looks like Eric Roberts as a Chippendales dancer. He’s decent, hardworking, and daredevilishly heroic. We know this because one character tells Jack he has the ”action jones” and another says, ”You always have to be a hero, don’t you, Jack?” Elise, who used to be tough but likable Harper Tracy on ER, here is tough but likable Erin Coffey, a firefighter who has to battle not only fires but also her stodgy, maybe-alcoholic father (Brian Smiar), who just happens to be the battalion chief of her department.
The idea of building a series around a fire department is a solid one; people who do this sooty job have always struck me as the most courageous of public servants. But in Firefighters, even the cliches are cliches. Forget, for the moment, that Jack has a wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) who, like Patricia Clarkson on Murder One, and spouses all over the tube, feels ignored by her hardworking hubby. Put aside the fact that the show’s African-American regular, Ray Gidgeon (Carlton Wilborn), is required to have a kid brother who’s a crack addict. Even scenes that are intended to overturn familiar notions about firefighters are predictable in the manner of many television dramas: When the gang goes to help a woman who’s been imploring her pet to come down from a tree, it’s not a cat, but — guffaw — a huge python.
Such foolishness is unworthy of the talent behind L.A. Firefighters. Elise is a good, strong performer who could really carry a series if given better material, and in his brief scenes thus far, Wilborn looks to be a charismatic actor. My hopes are also high for China Kantner, daughter of the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, playing a dizzy firehouse groupie named Flame who gets turned on watching guys slide down the fire pole. So far, Flame has been a minor character, but I always look forward to dramatic work by former MTV VJs.
Aside from its assiduous triteness and macho dialogue (”If we don’t stay wet, we’re toast!”), there’s a big thing missing from Firefighters: L.A. Setting the show in Los Angeles provides a good opportunity to see showbizzers’ obscenely expensive homes burn to the ground; at the other extreme, interesting plots could arise from the social politics of firefighting in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Just where is Station 132 located, anyway?
After its current six-episode run, L.A. Firefighters is already scheduled to return this fall to Fox’s lineup on Sundays at seven, where it will almost assuredly be doused in the ratings by 60 Minutes. Want some free, unsolicited advice? Get a dalmatian in that firehouse fast, give it a lot of screen time, and make it very cute. C