Fire Country Review: CBS Drama Spotlights Inmate Firefighters

Fire Country Review: CBS Drama Spotlights Inmate Firefighters

It was only a matter of time before broadcast TV — where police procedurals reign supreme — took a harder pivot into exploring the lives of firefighters. With audiences either craving more cop content or deeply skeptical of its lionization, it makes sense that networks might be more into the idea of spotlighting firefighters, who tend to point hoses at the danger they face rather than guns.

Now joining the likes of ABC’s “Station 19” and NBC’s “Chicago Fire” is CBS’ “Fire Country.” Executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and with the explosive stunts and set pieces to match, the new drama takes place in Northern California’s increasingly endangered woodlands, where a single spark can become a catastrophic nightmare within minutes. Promotion for the show has made sure to highlight the fact that it came from a pitch by star Max Thieriot (“SEAL Team”), as based on “his experiences growing up in Northern California.” But “Fire Country” isn’t just about firefighters battling brushfires. It’s also about incarcerated people trading months of their sentence for dirt cheap, backbreaking labor — an experience that, as far as I can tell, is not one Thierot or his firefighter friends have ever had.

The practice has been going on for decades, and is certainly worthy of more attention and scrutiny. What’s weird about “Fire Country,” though, is how the show (or at least its first two episodes) mostly just uses the concept of incarcerated firefighters to make Thieriot’s Bode — serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery — more of a badass wild card, a fearless leader who got unlucky, among a crew of other incarcerated men who mostly remain anonymous.

Without this central conceit, “Fire Country” would make for a pretty straightforward procedural with enough on the ground filming to keep it from blending too much into the TV background. Its pilot, written by Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, efficiently introduces a substantial cast, including Billy Burke and Diane Farr as married chiefs, Kevin Alejandro as the prison program head, Stephanie Arcila as the hometown girl with big dreams, and Jordan Calloway and Jules Latimer as the fire department’s go-tos.

As their characters’ lives overlap and make room for each other to the tune of twanging country guitars, some decent pairs of chemistry emerge. But make no mistake: from its conception to its premise to all its most standout scenes, this show is Thieriot’s. Despite the best efforts of W. Tré Davis, recurring as one of Bode’s fellow inmates, “Fire Country” isn’t all too concerned with the realities of the program it’s using to boost Bode’s story of loyalty, redemption, and walking out of roaring fires a hero. It might’ve been harder — or at least more complicated — to dive deeper into the stories of the men who left prison alongside Bode, but if “Fire Country” could make even that slight gesture toward honoring the experiences fueling this show, it would be far better for it.

“Fire Country” premieres October 7 at 9 p.m. on CBS.