As much as I love so-called “prestige TV,” there is no programming more magical than when a broadcast drama series cannonballs into the waters of bonkers, batshit absurdity—and, somehow, makes you cry in the aftermath.
ER and its event disasters set a bar for that—thank Dr. Romano’s unfortunate incident with a helicopter for a deep-seated fear of (turns out, literal) choppers. Grey’s Anatomy raised ER a helicopter crash with an airplane crash—and a ferry crash, and a car crash, and a deer crash. But my beloved 9-1-1—and its spinoff 9-1-1: Lonestar—have turned weekly episodes of network TV into full-fledged action films, each outing blissfully and unabashedly staging monumental setpieces that are as fantastically ludicrous as they are grounded in our greatest anxieties and emotions of “what could go wrong in life.”
It was a treat, then, to have a front-row seat this week to 9-1-1’s cast and set while in Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association winter press conferences—even if it was hard to shake the unsettling feeling that, given the show, the soundstage’s roof was going to crash down on me at any moment, or my shuttle bus there was going to careen off a freeway exit.
Co-creator Tim Minear appeared alongside cast members Angela Bassett (can confirm that the human reaction is to reflexively gasp when she appears in front of you), Peter Krause (see previous parenthetical and replace “gasp” with “swoon”), and Jennifer Love-Hewitt (ditto, but with the involuntary instinct belt out the chorus to her iconic 2002 pop hit “BareNaked”). Bassett charmed immediately. Asked whether anyone has treated her differently on set after she received an honorary Academy Award last month, she quipped: “Not one damn bit, so I’m glad you brought that up.”
9-1-1 had me at hello; in this case, “hello” means “the episode where a bouncy castle blows off a cliff with a man and his stepson inside and the emergency responders must rescue them.” The series’ seventh season premieres Mar.14—this season will also mark its 100th episode—but there will be one major change: In a rare move, the show is shifting networks, from Fox to ABC. 9-1-1: Lonestar, however, will remain on Fox.
Thankfully, while speaking on the lawn of the house owned by Bassett and Krause’s characters, Minear and the cast confirmed that the network switch would not be accompanied by a scaling back of calamity. (The fleet of emergency vehicles we passed on the way to the set seemed to echo that assertion.)
This is a franchise in which a woman has been hit by a meteor, a man nearly drowned in a vat of chocolate, and the Santa Monica Pier was wiped out by a tidal wave. And let us never forget the episode of Lonestar in which Rob Lowe gave CPR to a man whose body temperature plummeted while in a cryotherapy machine and accidentally cracked his frozen chest while giving compressions.) For a seventh season—and 100 episodes—expectations are high for new stunts.
“I have also discovered during this time that Tim Minear has aspired to be television’s Irwin Allen because we’ve done an earthquake, a tidal wave,” Krause told journalists, referring to the “Master of Disaster” filmmaker. “Now we’re doing The Poseidon Adventure.”
“What's interesting is, the tsunami that took out the Santa Monica Pier was weirdly easier to produce than a capsized cruise ship,” Minear said. “We almost had a cruise ship. And then the cruise ship company was like, ‘We’ll let you use our cruise ship but nothing bad can happen.’ Like, have you seen the show? And they’re like, 'Well, you can capsize it, blow a hole in it, sink it, as long as at the end we see it’s fine. And then they sail off.’ I’m like, no, we’re not going to do that.”
Throughout its run, the show’s big sequences—like recreating The Poseidon Adventure—have gained a new audience among those who may not have been familiar with its FOX run, or maybe even heard of it at all. TikTok-ers have been posting clips of the series’ zaniest disaster moments, sans context, on the platform, the connotation of the posts being, “What in the hell is going on?”
The irony is that the TikTok-ification of 9-1-1 echoes the source material that inspires the show.
“We have a lot of viral moments, and what’s interesting is it’s kind of a snake eating its own tail,” Minear said. “We still to this day take a lot of inspiration from viral videos. In fact, we’re recreating another one for an episode we're shooting now, and there have been several on the show. I mean, even in the first year, there was a moment of a guy getting caught at a car wash, and that was a recreation of a viral video. So that was always my aesthetic with 9-1-1, to try to make it feel like you were going down a YouTube rabbit hole of viral videos.”
Beyond re-staging The Poseidon Adventure, the 9-1-1 premiere will feature another sequence that’s inspired by a recent, real-life news story.
“There is another great disaster in the first episode, which you may have read [about] that there was a jet fighter that got lost,” Minear said. “The fighter pilot had to bail out of the plane, and they sort of didn't know where the plane went.”
Throughout the panel, the cast joked about the litany of catastrophes their characters suffered through. “I was killed and then brought back repeatedly,” said Kenneth Choi. “I think I got four wounds at this point from a gun,” Ryan Guzman added.
Still, no matter how preposterous the show’s storylines may seem, reality is catching up. In Los Angeles last summer, there was an earthquake the same day as a tropical storm. This week, an apocalyptic “atmospheric river” dropped record amounts of rain on the city. (I haven’t a clue what an “atmospheric river” is, and only can say that experiencing it was highly unpleasant.)
With real-life seeming like an episode of the show, has Minear taken any inspiration? He laughed: “Just getting B-roll.”