First, let’s clear up the title. There is no remake emergency. While people are getting tired of remakes and adaptations, they still are going out in droves to see them. No, instead, this is a look at remaking the firefighting procedural TV series, Emergency!.
First airing in 1972 with the TV movie The Wedworth-Townsend Act, named after the act passed by the Californian legislature that authorized paramedics. Prior to the act’s passage, people with injuries or medical conditions were still attended to by first responders, but any medical care beyond basic first aid required a nurse or doctor who arrived with the responders to authorize or perform. Since there is never enough doctors and nurses, not every person arrived alive at the hospital. In particular, if a heart attack victim could make it to the hospital, the prognosis was good, but there was a two-thirds chance that the patient wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital. Even with the special Coronary Ambulances used in Los Angeles, the lack of available nurses and doctors meant that the attendants could do little.
While act passed and the early paramedic programs got set up, Emergency! creators Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, and Robert Cinader met with officers of the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) with an idea about a firefighter show focusing on the physical rescues to go along with the police procedural, Adam-12. One of the LACoFD officers, Captain Jim Page, suggested making the show about the new paramedic program, leading to the above pilot movie and subsequent TV series.
Like Dragnet and Adam-12, which used actual police reports, Emergency! would take its stories from LACoFD reports. Each episode split its run time roughly in two, with one part featuring Firefighter-Paramedic Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe) and Firefighter-Paramedic Johnny Gage (Randolph Mantooth) of fictional Station 51 as they went out on rescue calls and the other part focusing on the staff of Rampart General – Dr. Kelly Bracket (Robert Fuller), Nurse Dixie McCall (Julie London), Dr. Joe Early (Bobby Troup), and Dr Mike Morton (Ron Pinkard). Unlike the later series Law & Order, where there was a definite split between the police procedural in the first half and the legal procedural in the second, Emergency! followed the patient from rescue to emergency room, with the paramedics handing off to the doctors.
A typical episode of Emergency! features three rescues, a serious one to hook the audience, a lighter one to show the range of calls paramedics were getting, and a big set piece. Some episodes kept with current events, such as earthquakes and brush fires. During the downtime between calls, the cameraderie at both Station 51 and at Rampart, plus some drama for the episode were shown. Emergency! is a work drama, where the work is far more exciting at times than crunching numbers and going to meetings.
The series made an impact in its day. The popularity of the series led to public demand for paramedic and EMT service in cities across North American. The number of deaths in transit came down thanks to these services. A generation of kids who watched the series became firefighters and paramedics. Public access defibrillators can be found in cities, further improving the survival rates of heart attack victims. The number of lives saved by one TV series is immeasurable.
To remake the series would mean either turning it into a period piece, reflecting the early days of paramedic service, or bringing it to today. While the former may hold interest, a general audience is more likely to want the modern remake. Things have changed greatly since the last appearance of Gage and DeSoto in 1979. Medical technology has advanced greatly. Training has changed, going from the six week training Johnny and Roy took through Rampart to two year diploma programs, including clinical placement. People. however, are still people. People will still find new ways of getting into trouble, and the classic methods never go out of style. The new approaches to rescues can be showcased. The human element is key; the audience wants to know who the characters are.
Storytelling techniques have changed since the 70s, as the remakes of The Mechanic and Death Wish show. The nature of police procedurals have changed, from Adam-12 to Hill Street Blues in the 80s to Law & Order in the 90s and 00s. Viewers will want more than just rescues and camaraderie. They are used to interpersonal drama. There is still room for Johnny and Roy, and for Kelly, Dixie, and Joe, but the rest of the cast may look different and not just because of diversity in the workplace. The result will look different, as it should. Times have changed; works set in the now, as Emergency! was, need to keep current.
Considering the age and the nature of the series, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a remake. Dragnet has had a comedy remake in 1989, a more serious TV series, The New Dragnet also in 1989, and 2003’s L.A. Dragnet with Ed O’Neill as Friday, produced by Dick Wolf. Adam-12 had a remake series in 1990. Emergency!, however, only had a animated series, Emergency +4 that aired during the show’s original run.
The main issue with a straight remake of Emergency! is that a reality series might work better. Much like Cops fills in the Adam-12 niche, though not well, a reality series that rides along with paramedics or films at a hospital’s ER would cover what the TV series did in the 70s, with the added “real life drama” that a scripted series can’t provide. There was a Canadian reality series that did film at ERs, called Emergency, where Canadian singer Jann Arden narrated the goings on at two Vancouver emergency rooms.
There have been drama series featuring firefighters, including Rescue Me and Chicago Fire. The focus, though, was on the characters, which audiences showed up for. Likewise, the hospital drama is a staple, with at least one or two on during an TV season. There is some room for an Emergency! remake, but it would have to stand out, either in location or in focus.
The choice, then, is to add drama to the remake or to go the reality route with a camera crew riding along with paramedics. It’s a difficult choice; reality is inexpensive, but tends to be on specialty cable channels. Adding drama may mean moving the focus, and some of the audience will be there for the rescues. Either way, someone will get disappointed. The goal is to keep the disappointment down.
Something that came up while researching links for use in this post was the discovery of a new series, Emergency: LA. It isn’t airing just yet and has been in development since 2014. The series looks like it will follow the first responders at LA Fire Department (note, not the LACoFD) Station 77 and the LAPD. According to IMDb, the series is set to air in July 2020. Whether the series is a remake, a spiritual successor, or a show using the word “emergency” because it suits the subject matter remains to be seen.