In my house, we watch fire-based TV programs. For better and for worse. In the case of the new CBS show “Fire Country,” it’s mostly for worse at this point.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. The show, which dramatizes the experiences of inmate firefighters with CAL FIRE, was disavowed by CAL FIRE Chief Joe Tyler even before the series officially went on the air. Tyler stated, “This television series is a misrepresentation of the professional all-hazards fire department and resource protection agency that CAL FIRE is.” Nonetheless, the series still uses CAL FIRE uniforms and equipment in the episodes.
So what’s the problem with “Fire Country,” and how does it compare to other fire-based TV shows currently airing? There are two main issues to unpack here.
Soap opera-level drama
Frankly, I am surprised that the departments depicted in the other TV dramas don’t disavow those shows as well. They are all basically soap operas that often focus on the ridiculous, dangerous and completely unprofessional behavior of the series characters. Everyone’s sleeping with everyone else, people come and go from the fire station on no apparent schedule, firefighters do freelance arson investigations on their days off, new firefighters can be hired (or fired) just on the whim of one company officer. It goes on and on.
No one expects TV fire dramas to be documentaries or even all that realistic. They’re entertainment for the masses, and most viewers probably have little idea what firefighters really do. Even shows that take a more documentary approach like “CAL FIRE” on Discovery deliberately highlight dramatic moments.
There have been exceptions to this pattern in some of the current TV series. Occasionally they focus on real issues among firefighters: PTSD, exclusion at work, or problems at home related to the job. Every now and then, they include a poignant moment or a glimpse of truth about what being a firefighter really means.
But not usually.
“Fire Country” is full of cliches, coincidences and bad behavior. Everyone has issues on the show, they’re all related to one another in some way, and they all carry such weighty personal baggage that the emergency calls seem incidental to the plot of each episode.
Spotlighting characters over calls
TV shows and movies about firefighters are at their best when they focus on the emergency calls, rather than the individuals responding to them. Emergency response is naturally dramatic, and the reality is that teams dealing with them are, by definition, made up of people who are part of a larger effort. Individual personalities don’t matter; it’s all about the team. This is when firefighters themselves are at their best, too.
Some of the other TV series have done a fairly good job when they focus on the emergency calls; for example, “911” has been particularly creative in this regard. But this is where “Fire Country” falls short. It’s not just the sketchy CGI, bad dialogue and unrealistic outcomes; it’s the nature of the calls themselves that contributes to this problem.
Fighting wildfire is a marathon, not a sprint. Incidents tend to be decentralized and often go on for weeks. A lot of the necessary work is unglamorous and uncinematic – think digging fire line or clearing brush. None of this lends itself well to telling a satisfying story from start to finish in 42 minutes.
“Fire Country” ran up against this problem in the first episode and addressed it by contriving a fistfight on a fire scene. This is not the answer.
Balance is key
What is the answer then? I don’t agree with the San Francisco columnist who posited that wildfires are too traumatic to be used as a basis for mainstream TV. After all, I don’t hear people making the same statements about “CAL FIRE.”
It’s not the topic that is the problem, but how it is presented. Especially when it comes to wildfire, it seems that a more documentary/reality TV approach could work better. This style of filming allows for jumping around in space and time and keeps the narrative moving. Some of the recent documentaries about catastrophic wildfires were very affecting – “Fire in Paradise” comes to mind.
In disaster documentaries, the cast of characters and their individual problems are always secondary to the event itself. But that obviously wouldn’t work with a network drama, where the formula is for the same characters to be dealing with new challenges and intrigues week after week. Perhaps the key is to strike a balance: Create credible and sympathetic characters and then put them in dramatic yet believable situations, focusing on the impact of the incident itself rather than the personal issues brought by individuals.
“Fire Country” is not unique in falling short of this standard among network TV shows. All the current shows could do better. But as the newest entry into this market, you would hope that “Fire Country” would have learned from the mistakes of those who came before it.