Chicago Fire, a new procedural about firefighters and the EMTs who work with them which premieres on NBC tonight at 10 PM, is intentionally a bit of a throw-back. “What we’re trying to do here is a very, very classic, adult, NBC platinum drama,” executive producer Dick Wolf said of the show at the Television Critics Association press tour in July. By that, he means a procedural with a large ensemble cast, full of flawed professionals with good intentions, in this case, the residents of a single Chicago firehouse who are dealing with broken engagements, a foreclosed house, who’s cooking dinner, and an upcoming visit from Mayor Emanuel. I spoke with the show’s creators, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, about the pop culture tropes of fire-fighters and first responders, why they chose Chicago, and how Wolf responds to reminders about diversity from executives. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The expectations audiences have for police and medical procedurals are very well-established, but the character beats and story arcs are less clear for firefighters and EMTs. Were there shows you looked to as models? Were there things you could do because those tropes aren’t as calcified?
Michael: One thing that got us interested in doing television was the idea of going back to some of the classic NBC dramas. For us, the drama on network television right now is almost reactionary in terms of how good Law & Order was. We were thinking in terms of ER and Hill Street Blues, where you had a big ensemble. It doesn’t matter if it’s a firehouse, or a hospital, or a police station. Those ideas work. Thematically they work. You have a family, and like any family, they have problems internally, but when the shit hits the fan externally, they come back together.
The Law & Order franchise played a key role in both defining New York and giving New York actors work. Can you talk a little bit about your vision of Chicago? And to what extent will fire and accident victims be actual characters on the show?
Derek: We picked Chicago a because it was a city that was born out of fire, the entire city was knocked down and had to start anew. And the fire service has a history here that seemed a perfect setting and then what we constructed was a firehouse that, when you turn left, you’re in a really poor, dangerous neighborhood, and when you turn right, you’re in the middle of downtown, and skyscrapers, and luxury apartments. [Firefighters] will hear a very short description of what they’re rolling up on. They might hear building fire, they might here man down from unknown causse. For us to throw out an address and for you not know what these guys are rolling up on, are they going to be smashing out of a high-rise? Or rolling up on a gang fight?
Micheal: When the show first came to us, NBD and Dick had decided they wanted to do a firefighter show, and said what city would you want to do it on, and we walked through options. New York is so tied up with 9/11. Los Angeles really doesn’t have enough weather to make it interesting. Chicago’s a city where you can put a camera down and point it anywhere and see something interesting.