TV, 2012, 2 stars
Created: Michael Brandt and Derek Haas
First Run: 2012-Still in production (11 Seasons)
Apologies all, this is not going to be a review in the classic sense of the word. At best you could call it a rant. It’s taken me a long time to write this, and I make no apologies for being harsh about it.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Chicago Fire, by any objective measure, is not a great TV show, and wasn’t from day one. It’s a pretty standard procedural that offers nothing terribly new and exciting in terms of plot or characterisation in the immense canon of Dick Wolf. Its primary purpose is to give us a hyperstylised ridealong with first responders, with an escapist “rescue of the week” to add excitement, and lots of pretty people to look at. It became unwatchable, even for that much, after around season five, when it simply stopped having anything new or interesting to offer.
The only semi- interesting thing the show ever really had going for it was the fact that it was one of the first procedurals to have an out, lesbian regular character. We did not know until later in the run, but the show also boasted an out, queer LatinX female lead as well in Monica Raymund.
Despite their protestations to the contrary, the writers and producers of Chicago Fire are guilty of one of the most egregious and cliched Bury Your Gays moments in TV history. The producers tried to make lame excuses. They said that they threw all the characters up in the air at the end of season two, and decided that they needed to kill one off to shake things up. They chose the lesbian character, not because she was a lesbian, but because they thought killing off Leslie Shay (Lauren German) would have the biggest emotional impact.
I’m calling bullshit.
As interesting as Leslie Shay was, and Lauren German milked every last piece of her first real opportunity at the big time, she wasn’t a core character, she was just more expendable than the hetero heroes. Killing off Casey (Jesse Spencer) or Severide (Taylor Kinney) would have been the death of the show simply because too many women watching the series were lusting after the hunky firefighters. Killing Gabriela Dawson (Raymund) would have been unthinkable as she was the heart of it all, and the main love interest for Casey. That means you’re left with at least ten equally-important, all-hetero sub-characters, any of whom could have gotten the chop.
Who got killed off? The character that they had absolutely no idea how to write for. She couldn’t hook up with any of the male firefighters, they’d struggled with making something interesting out of her day job - how many times could they hospitalise Shay or send her into a mental breakdown anyway? - and she’d been created with no family they could create drama out of. In two seasons she went through two main girlfriends who both broke her heart, she tried to get pregnant, plus they had a go at messing with her friendship with Dawson. None of it stuck.
Shay was a great character - she was funny, sexy, emotional and real. German is a talent who can turn in pretty solid comedic and dramatic performances, even when the writing is sub par. She was just getting started. The sheer amount of time that they spent positioning and reinforcing Shay as a lesbian for straight audiences was eye-rollingly annoying. Yeah, great, we need to “out” her up front. We get it. But eighty percent of her big lines or comedic turns had something to do with explaining her being gay. Shay was never just Shay - she was the lesbian paramedic.
So… where could she really go? Nowhere. So they killed her off and replaced her - directly and immediately - with a lookalike pretty blonde straight paramedic who would go on to have a relationship with hunky male firefighters and who would appeal better to the conservative masses.
Now, I have lot of sympathy for the theory that the Chicago Fire showrunners did Lauren German a huge favour. After all, her next gig was the lead role of Chloe Decker in the outstanding Lucifer, which ran for 6 seasons across two networks. German is probably five times the level of star now than she was (or would ever have been) on Chicago Fire.
The principle here remains. The very existence of the Bury Your Gays trope means that it’s not OK anymore. Showrunners have to do better. This particular atrocity occurred in 2014, and Chicago Fire survived the blowback, mostly because of the excuses around “oh it’s a show where people risk their lives every day, so of course some will die.” Despite any narrative reasons why it might make sense, they cannot argue against the fact that in one senseless death they killed off all positive queer representation on the show.
The main reason Chicago Fire makes me so angry is that the existence of this character in the first place was so important, and they knew it. Most regular queer characters on TV even today exist in comedies or in genre TV. Genre TV, as great as it is, attracts niche audiences, and those audiences are generally inclined towards being more accepting of the different and the queer. It’s a relatively safe space (but showrunners still screw it up of course). Chicago Fire has been ruling its primetime network slot for 11 seasons, mostly in key conservative demographics, and it is still going strong.
How important could it have been to have a lesbian character grow and evolve on a show like that for 5 or 6 seasons? What kind of a role model could that have given to young women who have less exposure to shows in the niche? The networks have a huge responsibility to show diversity to the mainstream. Instead, all they showed was that they had no idea how to do that, and that they have no idea how hurtful it is when they fail.
All that these idiots succeeded in doing was giving that straight audience - many of whom barely tolerated this character in the first place - a reason to think that by daring to be out and proud with who she was, Shay deserved to be punished. She was more expendable because she was gay. That’s all the Bury Your Gays trope has ever been about.