Not all firefighter-related emergencies are created equal. Both times emergency responders were called to my last apartment building, nothing particularly dramatic happened—in the worst of the two incidents there was a lot of smoke from a neighbor burning food in their kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved nothing happened in my building that would make the evening news. I just wanted to assure you that not all firefighter calls exist on the same chaotic spectrum as those found on 9-1-1.
In Fox’s 9-1-1 and the warped hellmouth of fictional Los Angeles our characters call home, every emergency scenario follows the basic formula of “[Insert everyday occurrence] + cocaine.” Here are some emergencies that have taken place on the show: A man getting swallowed by an ATM machine. A bar distress call, involving a drone flying into a waitress’s face. A firefighter unit eating brownies laced with LSD. A drunk woman getting her head stuck in a tailpipe. (The sentient ATM and tailpipe lady happened in the same episode.) The series, cocreated by Ryan Murphy, is at once a love letter to the inherent bravery of emergency responders and the joy derived from looking up wild accident compilations on YouTube.
But if you thought the chaos of the 9-1-1 universe was limited to the streets of L.A.—it’s a hectic place!—then you were mistaken: Fox has now expanded its burgeoning franchise to Texas. And from the first two episodes of the spinoff 9-1-1: Lone Star, which premiered this week, it appears the city of Austin is just as much of a deathtrap in waiting for unsuspecting citizens. As The Ringer’s official (only?) 9-1-1-ologist, I felt it was my duty to dive into Lone Star to see how the series compared to its predecessor, what kinds of emergencies firefighters have to deal with in Texas, and how much Rob Lowe wears “I’m just doing this for the paycheck” on his well-moisturized face. Here’s what I discovered.
Lone Star Doubles Down on Tragedy Porn
Lone Star opens in quintessential 9-1-1 fashion: depicting a simple accident escalating out of control. This time, it’s a security guard setting his lunch on fire in the microwave because he wrapped his burrito in aluminum foil. Soon enough, the whole building is going up in flames, and Austin firefighters are evacuating everyone. Unfortunately, when one of the firefighters discovers the building is storing a ton of fertilizer, the show briefly turns into a Michael Bay movie.
For the rest of the episode, Lone Star can’t resist adding a couple of reminders that a bunch of characters were killed by a ton of explosive cow poop. But at the same time, strangely, the show leans on tragedy: Rob Lowe’s Owen Strand is introduced as a New York firefighter who worked 9/11’s ground zero and was recently diagnosed with probably-terminal lung cancer. He’s supposed to seem sad and tortured, which is kind of at odds with him being played by the same guy who played Chris Traeger. Also, since when was a 9-1-1 show supposed to be a massive downer?
Sadly, I’m not done listing Lone Star’s bad vibes: Owen’s son, TK—this is not a journalistic placeholder, that’s his real name—who is also a firefighter, nearly dies from a drug overdose after his boyfriend rejects his marriage proposal because he’s in love with another man. In just 20 minutes, an entire station of firefighters was blown up by poop, Rob Lowe was told he was going to die, and then his son nearly died. Why is this show so depressing? Do the writers need a hug? Are they listening to too much My Chemical Romance? Do the show’s creators know why people like watching 9-1-1 in the first place?
TK’s incident is the push Owen needs to accept a position in the fire department in Austin. One of his first tasks is rebuilding the manure-devastated station from scratch. (Despite TK carrying some serious psychological baggage, Owen lists his drug-related emergency as an “accidental overdose” and lets him work on his new unit in Texas, which feels a tiny bit unethical. Nepotism is fun.) This was enough tragedy porn to fuel an entire season of This Is Us.
Liv Tyler Feels Like She Came From a Different Show
No protagonist in 9-1-1 has a simple backstory. Lone Star’s co-lead is Michelle Blake (played by Liv Tyler), a paramedic obsessed with finding out what happened to her sister. The sister disappeared three years ago, and Michelle suspects her former boyfriend probably killed her. So when she isn’t doing an emergency intubation of an asthmatic child (very 9-1-1-core), she’s seeking out witch doctors who can help her find clues(?!?!). She even performs some type of seance in her bathtub.
I love this. Let Liv Tyler do her best Matthew McConaughey–in–True Detective cosplay. Let her ingest peyote on a vision quest where she ends up finding her sister living in a desert cave. Let a ouija board guide her to her sister’s real killer. If Lone Star became the Supernatural Firefighter Detective Show, I wouldn’t be mad—as long as we get answers to why Liv Tyler is doing a Southern accent only like 50 percent of the time.
We’re Expected to Take a Dude Named Judd Ryder Seriously
OK, so there’s actually one firefighter who survived the manure bomb. He wants to be part of the new team, but he’s still suffering from PTSD, so that makes him a risky hire until he gets some medical clearance. But none of that matters: I want to bring attention to the fact that this firefighter’s name is Judd Ryder. Judd Ryder. He sounds like a rodeo clown with a mean streak. How are we expected to take him seriously when Lone Star’s brain trust put his name through a Texas word generator?
And just how Southern is Judd? Well, he goes on a horseback ride–bonding trip with Fire Chief Rob Lowe in a scene I assume was left on the Brokeback Mountain cutting room floor.
The show probably didn’t intend for the most electric chemistry in the cast to be between Judd Ryder and Rob Lowe—especially since we’re supposed to ’ship Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler. But I just can’t see Lowe’s character condoning all those seance baths; they seem like a fire hazard.
Rob Lowe’s Character Is Obsessed With Hair and Skincare Products. Is This Even Acting?
The problem with a lot of characters in the 9-1-1-verse is that they’re poorly developed—the closest thing Owen has to a personality trait is “terminally ill.” (This is fine, in general, because all that matters is that the show’s emergencies remain delightfully bonkers.) Thankfully, Lone Star begins developing Owen’s personality by the second episode, in which it’s revealed that Owen is basically just Rob Lowe in a firefighter outfit.
Our guy is obsessed with skincare products—he spends a couple of minutes preaching the virtues of exfoliating facial cleansers to his team before getting a distress call. (He was absolutely mortified to learn one firefighter cleans his face with water and soap.) Then, when Owen finds out a new lung cancer treatment will interfere with his hair treatments, he has a nightmare where he’s gone bald and people would rather burn in a fire than get rescued by his chrome dome.
Reminder: This is a guy who survived 9/11, and his most traumatic nightmare revolves around potential hair loss. It is both extremely unrealistic to expect that losing hair would freak someone out this much, and it makes perfect sense if you just assume Rob Lowe is just playing himself.
Is 9-1-1: Lone Star Going to Use “Old Town Road”?
You know it, partner.
The Emergencies Remain Perfectly, Gloriously Dumb
With all the emphasis on tragic backstories and bathtub seances, I was worried Lone Star wouldn’t prioritize the emergency scenarios that originally turned 9-1-1 into legendarily stupid television. But while I wouldn’t put any of the early Lone Star sequences into the series’ hall of fame—it’s a high bar to clear, since half a yoga class once simultaneously went into labor—the show did deliver some absurd thrills. From the first two episodes, our emergencies included a man rupturing his esophagus by eating too much ghost pepper, a baby getting stuck in a tree, and most ridiculous of all, a bunch of employees going full Bird Box in their office.
What compels a bunch of people to jump off a ledge and seemingly lose their minds? We find out that the company’s catered sandwiches were laced with mercury—the real side effects are terrifying!—by a disgruntled worker. “They never tip,” he says as he’s arrested for effectively reenacting a viral Netflix movie. I suppose the lesson here is: Tip your servers or run the risk of getting Mad Hatter’s disease.
Now that’s the 9-1-1 I know and love—not depressing tragedies, but deadly food laced with ghost pepper and mercury. Blessedly, it appears more wild stuff is in Lone Star’s future, including a tornado and the firefighters being, quote, “bombed by bull semen,” per cocreator and executive producer Tim Minear. “You can’t go wrong there,” he added, and I agree. It ought to be a matter of when, not if, Rob Lowe is called upon to rescue a farmer whose head got stuck in a cow’s rectum. (Taking bets now!)
So as long as Lone Star remembers the enduring appeal of these silly shows, we should be in for another wild ride in the 9-1-1 Extended Universe (at least when Rob Lowe isn’t plugging hair products). Take it away, cowboy.