Sunday, October 20, 2013

Firefighting on TV

Chicago Fire may be a popular show in the NBC lineup, but I haven't been a regular viewer. After catching the first couple of episodes I decided that, despite some things I actually do like about the show, I wasn't up for a weekly melodrama set in a firehouse. It’s just a matter of personal taste, not a criticism of the show as a whole (although I do have some definite opinions about it).

The setting of a show – an office, a diner, a police station – doesn’t matter. Television writers and producers will take liberties with how things work in the real world for the sake of creating a good story. And in the end, isn't that what all of us are interested in? Taxi wasn't exactly an accurate portrayal of cabbie life in New York City. L. A. Law depicted more interesting cases in a season than the average attorney sees in a career. Millionaire mystery writers generally don't get to help NYPD solve murders like Richard Castle does. Yet all of these shows were/are popular with the viewing public. It’s all about entertainment value.

Shows about firefighters are no different. Writers usually skip over the less glamorous parts of daily firehouse life (vehicle and equipment maintenance, housekeeping, certain training topics) and cram multiple dramatic emergencies into every episode. Only busy firehouses are portrayed in the story, because that's what people want to see: all the excitement of nonstop alarms against a backdrop of salacious firefighter personal drama. If TV stayed true to certain details of real-life firefighting (such as long stretches without alarms at slower stations) and EMS response (2:00 a.m. calls for stubbed toes or constipation), the entertainment value would plummet. That's just the way it is in the not-so-real world.

So where does that leave Chicago Fire, Rescue Me, or classics like Emergency!?

First and foremost, they are entertainment created to grab and hold a viewer's attention.  In TV Land, everyone is beautiful or ruggedly handsome, story problems are larger than life (but can be resolved in 30 or 60 minutes), and interpersonal conflict and personal problems rule the timeslot. A lot of what you see on the screen may seem realistic, but trust me, most of the time it’s not. Whether you’re writing an entire novel about firefighters, or just have a scene or two involving fire, it’s your job as a writer to do your research – and I mean real research. Don’t be tempted to mirror what you see on TV or at the movies when it comes to firefighters, firefighting, and firehouse life.

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