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Does 9-1-1: Lone Star Keep Austin Weird?

As TV's wildest first-responder procedural extends the franchise with a new series set in the Texas capital, our Austin-based correspondent rates the queso.
  • Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler in 9-1-1: Lone Star. (FOX)
    Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler in 9-1-1: Lone Star. (FOX)

    Tara Ariano isn't just Primetimer's editor-at-large, she's also a resident of Austin, the proudly off-kilter capital of Texas. So who better to judge the accuracy and/or inanity of 9-1-1: Lone Star, FOX's new 9-1-1 spinoff set in her adopted hometown?

    Fox's 9-1-1 — an hour-long procedural about first responders in Los Angeles — exploded onto the TV scene in 2018 with a pilot so bonkers that even those who didn't know might have guessed that its executive producers included American Horror Story creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (as well as Angel and Dollhouse alumnus Tim Minear). Their audience surely included doubters who didn't believe a network drama could shock anyone anymore, and to those viewers, Falchuk, Minear, and Murphy presented a newborn baby flushed down a toilet, still alive and extracted from the pipe. Since then, 9-1-1 has depicted passengers stuck upside down in a broken roller coaster; passengers stuck in an elevator as it filled with water; and a living narcoleptic/cataplectic who awakened during his own autopsy, among many others. Not since Six Feet Under ended have residents of the greater Los Angeles area been plagued by such dramatically bad luck!

    Wise executives at Fox recognized that they were leaving money on the table by trying to contain all the outlandish emergencies in a single city, and a single series, and this weekend you can say "howdy" to a new installment of the franchise: 9-1-1: Lone Star, set in my adopted home town of Austin, Texas.

    After a freak accident kills all but one member of a Ladder Company in the Austin Fire Department, the city's fire chief (Kyle Secor) journeys to New York City to recruit FDNY fire captain Owen Strand (Rob Lowe) to rebuild the company, the way Strand had to do when his own company lost personnel after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Strand, who's still absorbing some shocking news in his personal life, declines. But when his son TK (Ronen Rubinstein) goes through a crisis, Strand decides they both need a fresh start, and that they will decamp to Austin together. Picking up on a Justice Department mandate to increase diversity in the department, Strand aggressively recruits from viral videos of daring firefighter rescues, and soon hires Marjan Marwani (Natacha Karam), an American Muslim woman of Middle Eastern descent; Paul Strickland (Brian Michael Smith), a black trans man; and Mateo Chavez (Julian Works), a Latinx man who's repeatedly failed the AFD Academy's written exam, possibly due to a learning disability. Strand's counterpart on the paramedic squad is Michelle Blake (Liv Tyler), who's still tortured by the unsolved disappearance of her younger sister Iris. Also tortured? Judd Ryder (Jim Parrack), the lone survivor of the catastrophe that wiped out the ladder company, now plagued by post-traumatic stress. Whereas the original 9-1-1 is anchored by its operator — initially Connie Britton's Abby; now Maddie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) — Lone Star's operator Grace (Sierra Aylina McClain) has a smaller role with regard to the emergencies, at least in the first two episodes provided to critics; however, she does have a bigger role outside work, as Judd's wife.

    When Lone Star was announced, I made a list of hyper-local emergencies a new group of first responders could handle. Queso burns! Bat attacks! Multiple audience members trampled at South By Southwest! Chili burns! It is my sad duty to report that the emergencies presented in the first two episodes are not particularly reflective of the community. The incident that kicks off the pilot involves a security guard absentmindedly reaching into a fridge in a break room and tossing a foil-wrapped burrito into the microwave. Not to say we never eat burritos here, but: it should've been a taco! Now what are they going to lead off with in the series premiere of 9-1-1: Golden Gate? (Note: not a real show. Yet.) A later incident in the pilot does find someone choking on a prank taco containing a brutally hot ghost pepper, but whatever; people choke everywhere, on all kinds of stuff! There is a daring treetop rescue toward the end of the pilot, and the second episode further ratchets up the craziness with an emergency I won't spoil, except to say there's never a wrong time to be reminded: always tip food-service workers, preferably in cash.

    While you may have formed opinions about the toxic masculinity of FDNY firefighters from, for instance, FX's long-running Rescue Me, the producers of Lone Star obviously couldn't pretend their lead isn't, uh, extremely pretty, and that such prettiness is the result of hard work. We learn a lot about how Strand maintains his appearance in the first two episodes. Several scenes show him with a smoothie close at hand. When the adorable orphan of one of the deceased firefighters brings by a plate of cookies, Strand announces that he's keto, and barely chokes down the one bite he's taken when the girl's mother proudly says the secret ingredient is heirloom lard. Strand is thrilled to have found a local dermatologist who performs the groundbreaking hair treatment he credits with maintaining his signature look, and holds forth at length on the importance of skin care in a locker room scene that doubles as a nice moment of casual acceptance of Strickland, who didn't always feel welcome in private male spaces in his previous ladder company. (Apparently producers wrote Strand's skin care evangelism into the show, though at least Lowe's not shilling his own real-life brand.) There are also a few predictable gags about Strand's New York city-slicker sensibility clashing with the down-home values of his new company that might play better if he had been hired to rebuild a fire department in a more remote outpost; it's fine if Judd doesn't prefer the cappuccino Strand's fancy new machine makes, but in the year 2020, there aren't that many places in America where someone can credibly act like it's off-puttingly fancy — certainly not Austin, a very cosmopolitan city of almost 1,000,000 people with a thriving food scene!

    Perhaps because its protagonist is an FDNY veteran who survived the 2001 attacks on New York City, Lone Star feels more subdued than 9-1-1; it may seem strange to say people watch the original series — which generally features characters' grievous injuries and deaths — because it's fun, but...you know, those people aren't actually real, and if we're screaming with delight, it's mostly at the ingenuity it takes to surprise TV fans at this point. Anyway: once Lone Star's producers feel confident that we truly appreciate all its first-responder characters' private pain, maybe they'll relax a little and cut loose with some wackier emergencies. I'm not saying I want to see someone half-crushed by a food truck or having a psychotic break in front of the animatronic LBJ, but I wouldn't be mad about it if I did.

     9-1-1: Lone Star will premiere on FOX following the NFC Championship Game this Sunday, before moving to Mondays at 9:00 PM ET during 9-1-1's midseason hiatus.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: 9-1-1: Lone Star, 9-1-1, Liv Tyler, Rob Lowe