In the opening scene of Fox’s new Austin-set drama 9-1-1: Lone Star, a security guard at a manure plant accidentally sparks a massive fire by microwaving a foil-wrapped burrito. Shortly after, first responders rush to aid a man choking on a Carolina Reaper pepper that’s been slipped into his taco. And the second episode finds firefighters caught in the middle of two neighbors squabbling over a backyard barbacoa pit. At this point, you may find yourself asking: How the hell did this show capture Texas life so authentically? Did it plant cameras outside my house, near my barbacoa pit?
Probably not—unless you live inside the Texas State Capitol, which makes at least five separate cameos in the show’s first two episodes (which aired January 19 and 20). While the drama is about a New York firefighter making a fresh start in Austin, as with the flagship 9-1-1 procedural it’s spun off from, 9-1-1: Lone Star handles the bulk of its production in Los Angeles. That means most of the Austin shots sprinkled throughout are just B-roll establishing shots—by the looks of it, all shot over a day or two to be parceled out across the season. Eagle-eyed residents will recognize many beloved Austin landmarks, such as Congress Avenue as you’re heading toward the Capitol; Congress Avenue, heading away from the Capitol; the Congress Avenue Bridge; and Congress Avenue, but at night.
In 9-1-1: Lone Star, Austin and Texas exist mostly as ideas—a kind of rustic badlands and a perfect retreat from big-city life for Rob Lowe’s heroic Manhattan fire captain. Lowe’s Captain Owen Strand lost his entire company in the September 11 attacks, and he’s now suffering from the first stages of lung cancer. Hoping to also get his troubled firefighter son, T.K. (Ronen Rubinstein), away from the stresses of New York City, Strand accepts an offer to come rebuild Austin’s Firehouse 126, which suffered its own tragedy in that aforementioned burrito-sparked blaze. He then recruits a diverse team that includes Muslim and transgender members alongside his own son, who is gay—“dragging this station into the twenty-first century,” as he puts it.
This ideological clash between Strand’s “city slicker” progressivism and Texas’s cornpone bigotry is positioned as the show’s central conflict—which makes its Austin setting inherently baffling. (Strand is recruited at the behest of the Department of Justice after multiple civil rights complaints; meanwhile, the woman who calls 911 on her barbacoa-roasting Hispanic neighbors recoils in cartoonish horror from all the non-cishet firefighters of color who turn up to help her). Again and again, 9-1-1: Lone Star portrays Texans as a bunch of racist, red-state rubes, bristling at Strand’s wokeness and love of fancy cappuccinos. That it’s set in a notoriously liberal enclave like Austin—even one that certainly has its own issues, from the governor’s refugee policies to the way gentrification exacerbates a long history of cultural segregation—just feels off, and it often paints a comically conflicted portrait of the city.
In its first two episodes, Lone Star hasn’t figured out how it wants to portray Austin, oscillating between a blue-state haven for “hipster culture” and a truck-drivin’ farm town. On the one hand, Strand—who’s an equally vain and chipper spin on Lowe’s Parks and Recreation character Chris Traeger, never too busy to pause for a lesson in proper skin care—announces that he’s feeling more at home in Austin after finding an organic food market and yoga studio. (“It’s like New York with a lot less trash on the streets!” he exclaims.) Austin’s funky, urban bona fides are further established through references to the city’s “crazy traffic,” while the fire team eats nearly all its meals at a food truck park. We’re also not sure where Strand found his modern, two-story house featuring both a downstairs jacuzzi and “gorgeous Hill Country views” for just $4,500 a month—so cheap compared to Brooklyn real estate, he gasps.
At the same time, the squad unwinds at the end of a long day of tending to Austin’s many food-related firefighting emergencies with some “good ol’ fashioned Texas line dancing,” like we do. (Naturally, Strand falls right in with some expertly choreographed, finger-gun-pointin’ shufflin’ to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” explaining that “the country thing” was really popular during the nineties.) It’s not that Austin doesn’t have honky-tonks—the city has some of the best in the state, in fact—or that many of its citizens don’t don Stetsons. The issue lies in that these elements all feel like stock “Texas” signifiers, as awkwardly deployed as the many “y’alls” peppering the dialogue of the show’s 911 dispatchers, or the way Liv Tyler’s paramedic character tells Strand he needs to “earn his spurs.” It comes off like some Hollywood producer’s generic idea of Texas, modeled largely on country songs and truck commercials. Oh, and if you’re wondering how long it takes before Strand dons a cowboy hat and goes horseback riding, you need only wait until the end of the second episode, titled “Yee-Haw.”
Perhaps spotting a Fox 7 news van or genuine City of Austin trash can will offer enough of a thrill to locals watching the show—or even the unintentional comedy within all of the silly references. For instance, outside of meteorologists, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone use the phrase “Travis County” (as in “I’m the best damn firefighter in Travis County!”) as much as these guys. One character adds that she’s excited to visit Austin, because she’s “always wanted to check out South by Southwest,” as though it’s some sort of year-round county fair. Even our humble Texas Monthly gets a little shout-out for an article that supposedly declared peppers “the new superfood” (which, sure, okay). At one point, apropos of nothing, someone blurts out the name “Sandra Bullock.” But then again, people don’t watch shows like this for the lived-in regional authenticity. They want to see Rob Lowe, playing a fireman, pulling a baby out of a tree. Let’s see Terrence Malick do that!
And yet, it’s telling of just how little Hollywood actually thinks of Texas that even a 2020 show still plays to such hackneyed cliches and stereotypes about Texans as closed-minded yokels who don’t know not to put aluminum in the microwave. (Though, to be fair, the security guard was distracted by a Longhorns game where they were actually winning.)
If there’s any consolation here, it’s that 9-1-1: Lone Star has skimmed through so many of these tropes in its first two hours alone. (It’s even already used the line, “We’re one spark away from the biggest barbecue in Texas history!”) So maybe now the show can settle down and start telling stories that just happen to be set in Austin, rather than ones so clumsily “about” Austin. That’s really the only way the show’s gonna earn its spurs, as we Austinites always say.