On February 15, we’ll mark one year since a winter storm felled Texas’s electric grid, leaving millions of us shivering in the dark for several perilous days. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really need an anniversary to be reminded of all that. I’ve definitely been thinking about it a lot this week, as soon as the words “freezing rain” started popping up in the forecast. But, truth be told, the feelings those memories evoke—dread, anger, helplessness—have stayed with me over the past year. I have a post-traumatic twinge of panic whenever the lights flicker.
I don’t need a TV show to remind me of these things, either. Yet along came Fox’s 9-1-1: Lone Star to do it anyway, kicking off its third season with four straight episodes set during that deadly February week. I’ll admit, I haven’t really kept up with the show, which stars Rob Lowe as an upbeat New York fire captain who’s placed in charge of Austin’s fictional station 126—all of it filmed squarely in Los Angeles. But I did see some of its first season, where Austin was presented as a sort of redneck Grand Guignol whose players are all doomed to die choking on overly spicy tacos or burning alive in exploding bull semen factories. Scanning through some of the more recent episode summaries, it seems like the show has gone even more biblical with the plagues it’s visited upon the capital, as Lowe and company have since pulled Austin out of cataclysmic dust storms and volcanic sinkholes alike. Naturally, I was curious to see whether 9-1-1: Lone Star would address the 2021 winter storm with that same commitment to verisimilitude.
Listen, I get it. No TV or movie could ever really capture what it was like living through that storm, an experience that, for most of us, was colored equally by terror and tedium. I know that we all have our stories to tell, and that mine isn’t unique (nor is it particularly cinematic). My family lost power for five days in all. As the temperature inside dropped to around 25 degrees, my wife and I huddled in our bed with our two five-year-old daughters under every blanket we could find. I taped towels and cardboard boxes over the windows. We pulled out the thick Canada Goose parkas we thought we’d put away for good after we moved back here from Chicago, and we wore them even as we slept. Our girls passed the hours watching the same dozen My Little Pony episodes on their iPad, while my wife and I hate-scrolled Austin Energy’s Twitter feed. Twice a day, our whole bedraggled family would stumble into the car to get warm, recharge our devices, and eat from our rapidly dwindling supply of food.
By the end, we were all hungry and exhausted. I’d worn the same pair of long johns for four days straight. My kids smelled like mustard-coated hot dogs. Still, all things considered, we were really, really lucky. I’d filled every available container with water before the boil notices arrived, so we didn’t go thirsty. None of our pipes burst. No one came down with hypothermia. None of us were reliant on life-sustaining medical equipment or refrigerated medicine. None of us got sick. None of us died. Our bout with the storm was scary, a jarring reminder of how quickly even a big city like Austin can revert back into a lonely Texas frontier. But it wouldn’t make for very good TV. I doubt I’d watch it.
Neither would 9-1-1: Lone Star cocreator Tim Minear, it seems. In an interview shortly before his show’s season premiere, Minear said he’d “hesitated” to incorporate the storm at first, because he had already done a big power-outage story line on his flagship 9-1-1 series. Besides, Minear said, an ice storm just lacks a certain, necessary spectacle. “So it’s like, ‘Okay, the power goes out,’ ” Minear told Decider. “But it’s still not like a big event, like a tsunami or an earthquake hits. It’s a thing that sort of happens over a period of time.”
The power outage could be “an element” of the story, Minear concluded, “but it can’t be the whole thing.” Instead, beginning with 9-1-1: Lone Star’s January 3 season premiere, and continuing through its January 31 episode, the drama has remained largely focused on the blizzard that the show’s writers seem to believe never stopped blowing, in a whiteout of sparkling soapsuds and CGI effects. The show has also come up with some appropriately big, prime time–worthy obstacles for its heroes. A boy falls into a frozen pond and becomes trapped beneath the surface. A sheet of ice slides off a passing semi, nearly decapitating a man skiing behind his buddy’s pickup truck. (Okay, that last part had some basis in reality.) And in the story line’s biggest set piece, a church collapses, then catches fire. Then the water used to douse the fire freezes, transforming the whole building into an impenetrable ice fortress with survivors trapped inside. It all looks really cool. Spectacular, even.
So does Lowe’s fire captain character, Owen Strand, who’s retreated to his farmhouse in the white-capped Hill Country since I last saw him and grown a mountain-man beard. Being snowbound gives Strand the opportunity to romance guest star Julie Benz and act out a sort of Steven Seagal action-movie fantasy—first by taking out a local smuggler who’s threatening a barn filled with immigrants, then by kicking the ass of a crooked local sheriff who’s in cahoots with a Mexican cartel. But mostly Strand is wrestling with the fallout from last season’s shuttering of Station 126, all while his scattered teammates cajole him into fighting to take it back.
With all of this personal drama, corruption, and near-decapitation going on, who would have the bandwidth to worry about the electricity going out? Certainly not the characters of 9-1-1: Lone Star, who barely even acknowledge it. Instead, the grid collapse that left so many of us teetering on the brink is reduced to set dressing—a minor nuisance that necessitates, at most, a few lanterns to be placed where these characters hash out their professional and romantic lives. The closest the show comes to acknowledging the outage directly is through a bit of light comedy in which a 9-1-1 dispatcher talks an elderly woman through starting up a gas-powered generator. Mostly, the blackout just offers an excuse for Lowe to do his brooding by firelight.
That’s not to say the show’s characters aren’t inconvenienced. Indeed, they complain repeatedly about interruptions to their cell service—something that really did affect customers all across the state. And because the 9-1-1: Lone Star firefighters can’t reach each other by phone, they’re all forced to drive—through that never-ending blizzard, and ostensibly across treacherous ice—to turn up on each other’s doorsteps, again and again, just so they can have these pressing conversations in person. (It probably goes without saying that none of them express any concerns about gathering during COVID-19, something that added a fun wrinkle of anxiety to the actual ice storm.) In retrospect, I guess I was lucky. My cell reception was fine. That whole time I was worried about my family dying, I could have called anybody I wanted to and argued about work.
Sometimes during these casual ice storm pop-ins, the characters of 9-1-1: Lone Star also bring each other sandwiches they’ve just “picked up” from a deli that’s still somehow open. They sip steaming hot coffee while they muse about how eerily quiet their 9-1-1 call center is—the sound of “millions of people needing help, but not being able to get it,” as Gina Torres’s character puts it, before the show quickly changes the conversation.
Almost none of them wear so much as a hat, save a fashionably slouchy beanie, or don anything heavier than a cardigan. Lowe spends most of the fourth episode wearing a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up. In all, those subfreezing temperatures are a distant abstraction, a blurry white backdrop to the characters’ own personal soap opera. And as they banter in their warm, well-lit rooms, they certainly don’t seem all that concerned about rushing to the aid of those “millions” out there, or overwhelmed by the impossibility of ever getting to them. They’re focused only on each other.
Again, I get it. 9-1-1: Lone Star is a soap opera. Its fans care about the characters, not the Texas setting, nor the historical accuracy. For me to demand realism from a show in which a dead body once fell out of a passing airplane and onto somebody else’s in-progress funeral would be to completely misunderstand what people clearly like about it.
Still, even from my relatively benign vantage point, it’s hard not to feel mordantly amused, if not a little annoyed, by how nonchalant the show is about our entire paralyzing ordeal. I can’t imagine how these episodes might sit with the thousands of families who weren’t as fortunate as mine—those who lost their homes, or whose loved ones suffocated on carbon monoxide or simply froze to death in their beds. Nor could I imagine the reaction from Texas’s first responders, who spent several days slogging through those mounting casualties on zero sleep, crying in their cars over all the people they couldn’t reach, and probably not having any fun sing-alongs to Tom Petty.
Minear is correct that the storm didn’t produce some tsunami-level extravaganza, but it’s not as though the freeze lacked compelling stories to tell. In San Antonio, fire teams had to watch helplessly as flames consumed an entire 32-unit apartment complex because pumps couldn’t push water to the hydrants. If these episodes of 9-1-1: Lone Star had a single scene approaching that level of tragedy—or showed even a passing concern for how the blackout affected us millions out here, beyond the main ensemble—this season’s theme might have felt less like a cheap, “ripped-from-the-headlines” hook from a Hollywood production that continues to not take Texans very seriously and that can’t seem to imagine misfortunes befalling us that don’t involve cows.
Still, it’s not really the show’s fault that I was left feeling this way. None of this would bother me as much if Texas weren’t white-knuckling it through another winter after nothing has changed—not in our electric grid, and certainly not with our leaders, who’ve yet to talk with any sort of urgency about ensuring this kind of catastrophe doesn’t happen again.
Maybe I’m just not ready to relive the 2021 freeze as a sexy TV romp, because the fears it conjures remain raw and sadly relevant. Last year, I saw just how swiftly our state can be plunged into chaos. I saw how the systems we believe will keep us safe can be as blithely self-interested as a bunch of handsome TV firefighters. I don’t really need 9-1-1: Lone Star to remind me of that, either.