Review: ‘9-1-1: Lone Star’s’ Austin is total make-believe and we love it
Toward the end of the series premiere of “9-1-1: Lone Star,” the lady who played Arwen says to the guy who played Sam Seaborn: “I just think a man should have to earn his spurs.”
And that, friends, is the neatest encapsulation of “9-1-1: Lone Star”: a swaggering MadLib of a TV serial where Austin’s city limits are shaped like the entire state of Texas. To steal a line from a cousin of mine, it’s also a hoot and a half.
When news broke that Rob Lowe would star in a spin-off of producer Ryan Murphy’s “9-1-1” set in Austin, we learned that the show filmed in Los Angeles. Disappointing, since we’re a film town and it would be fun to spot the guy from “Parks and Recreation” on the Butler Hike and Bike Trail. It wasn’t surprising news, though, and anyone expecting a Fox procedural from Murphy — the campy mind behind such oft-hallucinogenic fare as “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens” — to feature a realistic version of Austin probably just enjoys being mad.
On Austin360 Radio:
The first episode of “9-1-1: Lone Star” aired Sunday night, and sure enough, it was a fever dream set in an Austin that does not and has never existed. The short synopsis: Firefighter Owen Strand (Lowe), a 9/11 first responder holding onto a tragic secret, moves to Austin with his son TK (Ronen Rubinstein) to rebuild a fire station abandoned after nearly its entire crew perished in an fertilizer plant explosion. We see that firebomb in the show’s opening scene, and it’s obvious that the 2013 explosion in the Texas town of West was the inspiration.
The first moment includes a snippet of a Longhorns vs. Aggies game — who wants to tell them? — and it’s a bingo card of Lone Star references both stereotypical and hyperspecific from there. Our first pulse-pounding emergency takes place in front of a taco trailer. Owen and TK, during a putting-the-team-together montage, walk in front of a green screen doing a great impression of the Capitol. “I’ve always wanted to check out South by Southwest,” daredevil recruit Marjan (Natacha Karam) says. Is that the Line hotel? Oh, that’s definitely the JW Marriott.
We hear that Texas Monthly says peppers are the new superfood, and TK hits us with the fact that Austin’s rent is so cheap you can get a huge living space for the same price as a studio in Red Hook. (Probably true, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back about affordability, hoss.)
Then there are the stabs at depicting the work of public safety in “9-1-1: Lone Star,” which play out with the high dramatics of a TV potboiler. Liv Tyler’s Michelle Blake, an EMS captain, sharply tells a cocky Owen that her people call the shots on medical emergencies (in this case, a hot pepper prank gone wrong), not his fire crew. True, a firefighter told us, but it wouldn’t play out like that in real life. She tells him to check out the Travis County manual, whatever that is. And part of the reason Owen is brought to Austin is to sort out some diversity problems in the department, which has gotten in hot water with the Department of Justice. Sounds familiar; Murphy and other showrunners did a little Googling, it seems. Owen’s dream team includes, Marjan, a Muslim woman, as well as Paul (Brian Michael Smith), a black trans man from Chicago, and Mateo (Julian Works), a Latino man.
Yes, the Wild West frame around “9-1-1: Lone Star’s” Austin is a fairytale. “Y’all take care of yourself out there, you hear?” a dispatcher says as firefighters head out to a feed factory off “the old main road,” and, like, which main road? Owen says he’s going to drag Austin kicking and screaming into the 21st century. There’s talk of city slickers, and “Gucci loafers” is tossed as an epithet.
Before you fret too much about this depiction: Let’s not rush toward some definitive declaration of what Central Texas is. It’s taco trucks, it’s feed factories, it’s South by Southwest. It’s also hard-working people line dancing at a honky tonk, which is where we find our heroes at the end of the day. (Though TK, who’s gay, seems to have walked into the least homophobic honky tonk in Texas based on how quickly he finds an interested guy.) Yeah, “9-1-1: Lone Star” lays the Texas flavor on as thick as cream gravy, but it doesn’t taste entirely unfamiliar.
More to the point, the first episode brought us Lowe rescuing a baby stuck in a tree, and the tease to future episodes promised a car dangling several stories off a building — Murphy must read the American-Statesman, I’ve become convinced — and that most everyday of Austin occurrences, a tornado. Let’s have a little vaguely familiar fun here. The show’s second episode airs 7 p.m. Monday, its normal time slot going foward.
If anything, I want to see if Liv Tyler ever rides a scooter.