It's nearly impossible to be a fan of procedural television without watching a series produced by Dick Wolf. He created an enduring hit with the "Law & Order" universe in the 1990s and continued his reign with his "One Chicago" universe. In 2012, Wolf took fans from New York to the Windy City with a franchise that follows law enforcement officers, firefighters, and medical personnel. The franchise's flagship series, "Chicago Fire," is among the best procedural shows of the last ten years due to its quality storylines and lovable characters.
The men and women of Firehouse 51 share a unique bond that transcends mere professional relationships. Week after week, the series brings them into some of the most dangerous situations imaginable, and survival is never guaranteed. This show is the most reliably well-written part of the "One Chicago" franchise. Still, every great series has its low points. Some seasons are memorable from beginning to end, while others suffer from pacing issues, unpopular cast changes, and inconsistent quality. However, no season is without merit. The best seasons of "Chicago Fire" have an emotional resonance that many shows fail to achieve, and even the weaker seasons still have something valuable to offer viewers.
From the moment filming began, season 9 of "Chicago Fire" faced an uphill battle. Production started in November 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic had already caused widespread shutdowns on film and television sets. According to Deadline, the show suspended filming after a few weeks because multiple people contracted the virus. This interruption (and a two-month hiatus after the second episode) negatively impacted season 9's quality. It is among the shortest seasons of the series, and many episodes are a far cry from the hard-hitting drama fans love. Although the season gets off to a decent start with "Rattle Second City," none of the other episodes rise to the occasion.
The pandemic's imposed limitations become even more evident as the season wears on since the storylines focus more on building relationships than fighting fires. For instance, the subplot of Matt Casey (Jesse Spencer) and Sylvie Brett's (Kara Killmer) relationship feels fresh out of a soap opera. Thrilling rescues and intense action are more scarce this season than any other. The creators did their best under unprecedented circumstances, but the lack of balance throughout the season makes it boring to watch. However, the series does an excellent job of incorporating the real-life impact of the pandemic without overshadowing its usual formula: The seamless introduction of outdoor patio seating at Molly's Bar in "Rattle Second City" reflects a change that viewers recognized from their favorite restaurants in the real world.
Killing off popular characters is always risky, and season 3 features one of the most disappointing deaths in the series. After a nail-biting season 2 finale, season 3 starts with "Always," featuring tearjerker flashbacks about Leslie Shay (Lauren German). Her fate wasn't certain at the end of the previous season, and this premiere quickly confirms that the fan-favorite character is dead. However, it also pays homage to Shay and stirs nostalgic feelings about her best moments from the show. The episode is full of contemplative moments but manages to have a satisfying plot.
Although it's a touching episode, "Always" starts the season on a low note that is hard to build from in subsequent episodes. As the Firehouse 51 crew (and viewers) reel from this tragic loss, the storylines in season 3 become overly convoluted. Everyone processes grief differently, but some characters' methods detract from this season's cohesiveness. Lieutenant Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney) takes an impromptu grief-driven trip to Las Vegas that ends in a shotgun wedding to a virtual stranger. Unfortunately, this storyline introduces a character who only sticks around for a handful of episodes and does little to further Severide's character development. Even "We Called Her Jellybean," part of an excellent three-episode crossover with "Law & Order: SVU" and "Chicago PD," gets lost in the shuffle during this unfocused season.
Season 8 of "Chicago Fire" suffers from a common problem for long-running series: writers can only reinvent the wheel so many times. While this season has decent direction and action, many of its storylines are less interesting. Similar to season 3, this season kicks off with the death of a beloved character and follows Firehouse 51 as they handle the aftermath. This time, the unlucky victim is Brian "Otis" Zvonecek (Yuri Sardarov), a woefully underrated young firefighter. Otis' death doesn't receive quite the same treatment as Leslie Shay's, but the series explores some small tragedies that follow his sudden death: In "A Real Shot In The Arm," Christopher Herrmann (David Eigenberg) has to sell Otis' portion of Molly's Bar to keep the business afloat.
Although the first few episodes successfully capitalize on the fallout of this sad event, the season quickly stalls out. Gabriela Dawson (Monica Raymund) resurfaces in "Best Friend Magic," and the crew takes part in a "One Chicago" crossover event. Still, these storylines don't pack enough punch to carry the middle of the season. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted production in March 2020. As a result, season 8 ended three episodes earlier than planned. While the finale, "51's Original Bell," works, it isn't as powerful as other finales in the series.
Matt Casey is the heart and soul of "Chicago Fire." His storylines are among the most compelling, and he's an undeniably well-developed character. From his first minute on-screen, Casey establishes himself as a caring leader who puts others' needs first. Though he has instances of being too quick-tempered, his heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, in season 10, the series suffers a significant loss when Casey departs in "Two Hundred." The episode follows Casey through his goodbyes without veering into sentimentality and leaves the door open for him to return.
Although fans can walk away from season 10 feeling like one of its best characters has a solid future, his replacement is a huge letdown. Interim truck lieutenant Jason Pelham (Brett Dalton) clashes with the rest of the crew almost immediately, and it's no great tragedy when he leaves after nine episodes. However, season 10 has one colossal highlight: Kelly Severide and Stella Kidd (Miranda Rae Mayo) finally have the wedding everyone has been waiting for in the season finale. Best of all, fans get one last glimpse at Casey, who returns to celebrate with the newlyweds.
Many long-running series suffer from a content stall-out at some point, which seems to be the case for season 11. The season starts with "Hold On Tight," which is one of the series' best premieres. From minute one, it's running on high-octane fuel, picking up where the season 10 cliffhanger left off and charging full speed ahead. It's exhilarating to watch Severide pin down his assailant with a fishing spear, and Kidd's take-charge attitude reminds everyone why these two are the perfect "Chicago Fire" power couple. Nevertheless, even with so much tension to build from, the early conflict resolves too quickly to carry the whole episode. This inconsistency plagues multiple episodes, which throws off the pacing of this season.
One of the biggest problems with season 11 is the ever-increasing presence of recycled storylines. "Haunted House" is a fun Halloween-themed episode that provides much-needed comic relief, but the Severide and Kidd subplot is stale. The two help a wayward teenager during holiday festivities, which feels like something we've seen a hundred times before. There are only so many ways to put out a fire, so originality is understandably more difficult after ten-plus years on the air. Still, the presence of rehashed material makes season 11 weaker than previous seasons.
Season 6 isn't necessarily bad, but it's not very good either. It offers more forward momentum than weaker seasons but fails to deliver on some of the series' signature strengths. Although the episode "Hiding Not Seeking" brings a crossover with "Chicago PD" to a satisfying conclusion, season 6's episodes are lighter on action than more successful seasons. Most storylines focus heavily on small events that propel characters' personal lives in new directions, such as Severide and Kidd finally giving love a chance and the ever-increasing strife between Casey and Dawson.
Whereas a lack of intense action makes some other seasons dull, season 6's quieter tone feels justified. Still, this season's relationship developments lay the groundwork for great moments later in the series. "Chicago Fire" has always featured a balance of heroics and humanity, but this season's understated mood makes it more forgettable than other seasons. This is especially true of the finale, "The Grand Gesture," which spends more time detailing Casey and Dawson's struggle to conceive than it demonstrates what the Firehouse 51 crew does best. Although many seasons of "Chicago Fire" end with a cliffhanger, "The Grand Gesture" feels more like a mid-season episode than a proper finale.
Sometimes, all it takes to refresh a series' waning energy is a new character. In season 7, the temporary addition of Assistant Deputy Commissioner Jerry Gorsch (Steven Boyer) adds some much-needed conflict to Firehouse 51 after a subdued sixth season. Gorsch is the kind of character fans love to hate: The desire to see him crash and burn keeps us wanting to watch. Unsurprisingly, Chief Wallace Boden (Eamonn Walker) butts heads with the newcomer, which creates some genuinely enjoyable disagreements between the two men. The payoff for his storyline is also a big win for this season, with a satisfying dismissal in "All The Proof."
This storyline gives way to smaller, less interesting plots, such as Severide's ongoing preparations for his father's funeral. Additionally, he and Kidd call it quits in "Inside These Walls," but the breakup isn't terribly shocking and doesn't last long. Unfortunately, this mid-season tempo loss keeps season 7 from being as consistent and memorable as it could be. However, the action picks back up in the season's last three episodes. The final episode, "I'm Not Leaving You," is the season's saving grace, ending with a stunning cliffhanger that rivals many of the series' best finales.
Far too often, procedural shows begin with a throw-away season. Audiences learn the formula, meet the characters in a surface-level fashion, and settle into a new series without any significantly memorable moments. However, that's not the case with season 1 of "Chicago Fire." The pilot starts with a bang — literally — which leads to the tragic death of a young firefighter, Andy Darden (Corey Sorenson). Although there's no time to build a deep emotional connection to Darden, he becomes an effective device for exploring the main characters' emotional worlds.
Audiences barely have a chance to absorb the weight of this loss before the Firehouse 51 crew is off to another rescue. The pilot sets an intense pace for the series but also features quiet moments of solid character development. This excellent balance of action and exposition continues throughout the season, with highlights such as the opening of Molly's Bar in the penultimate episode, "Let Her Go." Each main character gets their fair share of backstory, and several episodes weave the series into the "Chicago One" universe. Season 1 ends with an equally action-packed episode, "A Hell Of A Ride," that raises the stakes on established storylines and sets a firm foundation for future seasons.
Some of the best seasons of "Chicago Fire" feature storylines that dial up the drama with passions running high. In season 4, "Chicago Fire" features Matt Casey's run for alderman, which sparks plenty of political strife in "Two Ts." In addition, fans of Chief Boden (Eamonn Walker) will find themselves on the edge of their seats as he faces significant threats to his career — and his status as a free man. Meanwhile, Dawson goes from happily pregnant to reeling from a devastating miscarriage within season 4's first four episodes.
This season also features one of the series' best "Chicago One" crossovers, which kicks off with "The Beating Heart." After being stabbed in Molly's Bar, Herrmann fights for his life at the Gaffney Chicago Medical Center while the team tries to track down his attacker. The crossover combines all three "One Chicago" series, once again demonstrating this universe's impressive cohesion. There are plenty of emotionally resonant moments throughout season 4, and its only real downfall is having too much going on at once. The pacing is consistent between episodes, but it's a little too fast for audiences to absorb all the small tragedies and triumphs. While some seasons feel starved for depth, season 4 could use a bit more downtime between beats.
Season 5 of "Chicago Fire" succeeds where most other seasons fail: there is plenty of relationship drama, but it never sacrifices the show's action. There are several instances where the relationship drama becomes the action — such as the Severide/Kidd storyline in "The Hose Or The Animal." Kidd's dangerous ex-boyfriend comes after her and Severide and later faces attempted murder charges and a psychiatric hold. This subplot only carries through two episodes, but audiences see how the pair behaves under pressure instead of just watching them enjoy experiences together. The other fan-favorite couple, Dawson and Casey, also face an intense situation when they find their status as foster parents in jeopardy.
This season also includes two dynamic guest stars in small but memorable appearances. S. Epatha Merkerson appears as her longtime "Chicago Med" character, Sharon Goodwin, and "Rocky" star Carl Weathers rounds out the cast as "Chicago Justice" lawman Mark Jefferies. The actors star in "Scorched Earth" and "Deathtrap," both of which benefit from their combined performances. These episodes are the only instances of Merkerson and Weathers crossing paths in any "One Chicago" franchise series. "Scorched Earth," in particular, is among the most well-constructed episodes of the show's early seasons. From the sewer explosion at the beginning to Casey and Dawson's DCFS scare, it's a prime example of how tight and effective a one-hour episode can be.
Season 2 successfully capitalizes on the solid foundation set by its debut season — accomplishing an impressive amount of world-building. More than any other season, season 2 manages to do exactly what makes this series so compelling: it makes viewers care about the characters' personal lives amid relentless high-stakes action. One of the best aspects of this season is the extensive character development given to Casey and Severide. Both men face intense obstacles, such as Casey's health scare in "Virgin Skin" and the mid-season kidnapping of Severide's sister. The friendship between these two firefighters is integral to the series, and season 2's focus on their struggles creates a perfect platform for its ongoing development.
However, the success doesn't end with Casey and Severide — all of the main characters enjoy their time in the sun and feel multi-dimensional by the season finale. And what a season finale it is: a boarding house fire, significant changes for Dawson, and a firehouse wedding are just the beginning of the drama in "Real Never Waits." The cliffhanger ending after a building explosion leaves viewers breathless and fearing for the lives of everyone in Firehouse 51. Although the series is well-known for its shocking finales, none can hold a candle to this unforgettable closing episode.
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