By SARA SMITH
The Kansas City Star
The manly heroes of "Chicago Fire" solve problems on their own terms.
When a newbie shows up late they make him run drills in a gas mask. When the firehouse TV breaks, they sell T-shirts to raise money. When flames kill one of their own, they cope by throwing a pouting contest.
Winning that competition is the leader of the rescue squad, Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney of "The Vampire Diaries"), who is about to sulk his stubble off. Running a close second is Matt Casey (Jesse Spencer of "House") whose animosity-laden friendship with Severide runs parallel to his muddled romantic life.
Casey is the good-hearted, sensible type - you can tell by his practical gray T-shirts. Severide is a bad-boy thrill-seeker - you can tell by the zippers on his black leather jackets.
The action sequences that propel "Chicago Fire" are dramatically and visually gripping, as long as everyone keeps working and refrains from talking too much. But the obtuse characterization, on what is supposed to be a personality-driven ensemble drama, is too pervasive to be relegated to popcorn breaks.
Spencer, who hails from Australia, could have absorbed a few lessons from Hugh Laurie on the set of "House" about pulling off an American accent. He also should have learned how to keep guest stars from becoming more compelling than their rescuers.
Severide's delivery of a man's last words to his widow is a genuine tear-jerker, and Casey's dogged pursuit of justice for a paralyzed teenager is designed for maximum melancholy. "Chicago Fire's" compelling side stories shine a bright light on its weaknesses.
A firehouse setting where guys bond during 24-hour shifts is overdue on prime time, but the joshing and hazing rituals feel forced, and it's easy to lose track of how many of these guys have lost loved ones in the line of duty. The "no man left behind" mindset is dramatic enough without pausing in the middle of a collapsing inferno for five seconds of solemn gazes.
"Chicago Fire" is part of a NBC deal with Dick Wolf, the mind behind the "Law & Order" franchise, which deftly captures the haunted cynicism of civil servants with harrowing jobs. Some of that has carried over, with Christopher Hermann (David Eigenberg of "Sex and the City") nonchalantly reading the newspaper aboard Engine 51 as it makes its way to a blaze.
But there's not a single line of Lenny Briscoe-worthy dialogue in "Chicago Fire," with cliched insight dripping from the mouths of beefy Bears fans like bratwurst grease. By the time someone snarls, "He's a dirty cop, the kind of guy that gives the rest of us a bad name," you're ready for the sirens to start wailing.
And wail they do. With multiple thrilling scenes each week, peril is where "Chicago Fire" excels, bypassing the obvious trapped-baby scenarios in favor of rooftop construction calamities, cars overturned by drunks and skyscraper scaffolding falling onto crowded sidewalks.
Keeping the streets unsafe is a mostly unseen cadre of lazy, incompetent and corrupt police, who take on the villainous status of the conscience-free defense attorneys on "Law & Order." Casey and his team will need plenty of backup from Fire Chief Wallace Boden (Eamonn Walker of "Oz") to stand up to these shady cops who reveal just how evil they are by driving past darkened windows in slow motion.
"Chicago Fire" could amp up the gritty realism it aspires to by letting them lay off the lip gloss while they're saving lives. Letting the men talk like normal people wouldn't hurt, either.