“Two Families” is something of a return to form for Chicago Fire, which is unfortunate. Though the first few episodes were decidedly mediocre fire of the week installments with little to no character work, the last three have actually showed some promise. Throughout those episodes, there was something close to longer-term plotting in the form of Detective Voight (Jason Beghe)’s campaign to intimidate Lieutenant Casey (Jesse Spencer) into helping Voight cover up his son’s involvement in a drunk driving accident and Dawson (Monica Raymund)’s upcoming EMT disciplinary hearing. Though Voight, at least, seems likely to return in future episodes (and it’d be a waste not to bring Beghe back to menace everyone), both of these plots were given tentative resolution in last week’s “Rear View Mirror,” which was not coincidentally the best episode thus far. By contrast, “Two Families” starts with an explosion in a meth lab the episode never goes back to and a sex scene, so viewers can get their requisite scene of Jesse Spencer topless.
That opening signals the episode’s indulgence in the superficiality that continues to keep Chicago Fire decidedly mediocre. There are no less than seven additional subplots juggled around in an episode that also contains the aforementioned meth lab explosion, a turkey fire with a slightly bigger explosion, a gang shooting, and a 10-car pileup where Casey has to deliver a child because of course he does. Unsurprisingly, nothing in the episode is given nearly enough time to land. Though the storytelling is flashy enough to maintain interest (an improvement over the pilot), each of the characters with a subplot in the episode is given two, maybe three, scenes to work with, and even where the acting isn’t flat (which isn’t often), there just isn’t much the cast can do.
Characters underserved by the episode include: Cruz (Joe Minoso), who discovers his brother Leon at the site of the gang shooting and spirits him away to the hospital, only to lose Leon to the gang when he tries to check him out; Token Lesbian Shay (Lauren German), who has become hung up on one of her now seemingly straight exes because the show needed to give her something to do; and comic relief Otis (Yuri Sardarov), who has by far the worst story of the night trying to start a firehouse podcast. The podcast plot is close to Newsroom-esque (“What’s a podcast?!”) at first, and though it’s pleasantly devoid of further disdain for technology after a scene where Otis tries to teach Mouch (Christian Stolte) how to use a microphone, the device of Otis’ podcast providing closing narration for the episode is so obvious it’s almost painful.
The only cast member who gets much to work with this week is, unfortunately, Severide (Taylor Kinney), the most smolderingly hunky character in a cast of smolderingly hunky characters. The story where the firefighters are all forced to take a drug test after the meth explosion for no real reason is designed solely to bring to the fore the ongoing story of his shoulder injury, for which he has been taking illegal pain medications. But Kinney’s acting is so blank that he barely changes his expression between when Severide thinks he’s about to fail the drug test and when he’s bailed out by Shay.
Chicago Fire’s ADD makes a good case for the difficulties inherent in a firefighting procedural. If you think about it, the concept is pretty strange. Sure, there are inherently high stakes in both firefighting and EMT work, and there’s a lot of opportunity for intensity. But a fire isn’t a human adversary, like a criminal in a cop show, and unless each episode focused on a single fire (which the show wisely avoids), there’s no time to really get to know any of the people affected, like in a medical procedural. Fires are impersonal, and the characters at risk are almost always the firefighters themselves, who we can be reasonably sure won’t die. For a procedural to work, the audience needs to be invested in something at risk outside the wellbeing of the main cast (whether or not the killer is brought to justice or the patient survives), and firefighting doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that sort of storytelling.
Thankfully, Chicago Fire has proved itself willing to buck this sort of straight-up fire of the week episode. Many of the “cases,” such as they are, don’t involve fires at all, which might make for less visually exciting storytelling but also lets the show do stories like the relatively quiet, emotional subplot in the second episode, when Severide tried to help a construction worker trapped beneath a building. Some of the show’s more personal plots don’t involve firefighting at all. Appropriately enough for a Dick Wolf show, much of the Voight arc involved Casey and Chief Boden (Eamonn Walker) investigating Voight’s corruption and working with Dawson’s cop brother to bring him down. The series’ best moments come when it allows itself to use the firehouse as a frame for lots of different types of procedural stories, including the cop stuff and mini medical stories with Dawson and Shay.
Most of what works in the show has oddly come from the show alternately using these off-format elements and seeing clichés coming and just steering right toward them. Boden’s story, the most successful of the week, involves the chief taking an interest in a local kid who turns out to be a budding arsonist. We’ve gotten hints before that the divorced chief has a kid he never gets to see, but when the end of the episode confirms it, the show plays the moment straight enough that it seems serious rather than ridiculous. Firefighter candidate Peter Mills (Charlie Barnett), an idealist trying to live up to his deceased father’s legacy, is so archetypal he winds up strangely winning, and by far the best character on the show, though this is at least in part because of Barnett.
Though “Two Families” features most of the worst tendencies of the show, it’s still a surprisingly watchable hour. Most of the problems I have with it are ones of wasted potential, rather than flaws baked deep into the show’s DNA. There’s a version of Chicago Fire that might emerge now that the show has gotten a full season, one that manages to intercut decent character stories with exciting firefighting scenes while minimizing the woodenness of some of its acting, even as it is still proudly a Dick Wolf show. It’s just too bad that “Two Families” is about as far from that version of the show as Chicago Fire has been.
- Here are the seven subplots I counted: Boden’s adventures with Ernie the firebug, Severide’s arm and drug test, Shay’s encounter with her ex, Mouch’s hostility toward the drug tester, Otis’ podcast, and Cruz’s brother. I’m not including the Casey story because it doesn’t really exist until the last scene. Correct me if there are more I’m missing.
- There are a lot of characters for a procedural like this. Are any of them going to be cut at any point? Please?
- I didn’t even get to mention Hermann, who is consistently the best actor and funniest part of the series along with his Vitamin Water. His rebuke to the meth cook “With the kids up there?!” was the best.