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Emergency Call: ABC’s awkward attempt at spotlighting 911 operators

Luke Wilson hosts ABC’s new documentary-ish reality show Emergency Call from what I can only imagine is an escape room. There’s no other explanation for the hodgepodge of props that surround him, like the series of six clocks on the wall—the kind that show the current time in different cities, except at least two of them are set to the exact same time: 1:15, 2:15, 3:15, 4:15, 4:15, and 5:15. That must be a clue!

There are dated, useless props all around, like a rotary phone and a Rolodex and a TV with actual, physical dials; the bookshelves have banker’s lamps on them, the ones with green glass and the pull string, except they’re way up high, on the top shelf. A map on the wall is covered in Polaroid photos and notes with lines, like a made-for-TV conspiracy thriller.

Every time the show cuts back to Luke Wilson, I start trying to put all these pieces together and figure out the mystery, but I get distracted worrying he’ll break his beautiful teeth on all the scenery he’s chewing while making faces at the camera. But there is a mystery: How exactly is Emergency Call this bad?

Emergency Call is Rescue 911 without the reenactments, and with Luke Wilson instead of William Shatner. It ostensibly focuses on the 911 operators and dispatchers who are the first to talk to people who call for help, and who actually are the people responsible for sending the correct help to the right place.

These dispatchers have incredibly challenging jobs, entering people’s lives at intense and emotional moments, never mind—as we hear repeatedly—people in crisis aren’t great at answering direct questions, like, Where are you? or Do you need police, fire, or ambulance?

The calls they receive, and that we hear, are often legitimately terrifying: a woman, screaming, unable to answer simple questions, because someone’s stolen her car with her kid inside; people in cars and surrounded by rising floodwaters; a 911 operator trying to walk a kid through performing CPR.

Well, actually, they may not be people in crisis after all, but people acting like they’re in crisis.

Emergency Call uses actors to re-record 911 calls

Luke Wilson, acting as hard as he can
Luke Wilson, acting as hard as he can. (Image from Emergency Call via ABC)

I’m not a fan of entertainment being made out of people’s worst moments, especially when they don’t consent to being turned into for-profit entertainment. That was one of the many problems that Live PD and COPS both had.

Emergency Call’s solution: It takes people’s worst moments and has actors perform the audio and then still pretend they’re reality. (The Anchorage Daily News reported that “producers re-recorded voices if they couldn’t reach the original callers or they didn’t want to be involved.”)

To its credit, the show discloses this clearly, with a title card at the very beginning: “This program depicts real call centers handling actual 911 calls. Some calls have been re-recorded for the protection of privacy and/or edited for time.”

That phrase is oddly redundant—”protection of privacy”— and also ignores how 911 calls are public record in many states. There’s a longer disclaimer at the end that reveals what the show is doing is more than just re-recording, but also fictionalizing identities and details:

“This program depicts real call centers handling actual 911 calls. To protect the privacy of the callers, victims, and general public who utilize the services of 911, the callers identities and some of the details of the calls have been changed, and some calls have been edited for time.”

In the credits, that disclaimer is followed by a list of 12 cast members; I picked a few at random and searched for them on IMDB, and they were all actors.

The problem, even for a television show that is recreating the actual calls, is that a 911 call ends when assistance arrives, so that leaves us wondering what has happened. The stories are usually incomplete, as Emergency Call’s cameras are embedded only at the call centers (the show was filmed this summer, so it becomes another entry in the They Put People’s Lives At Risk for This? hall of shame).

Sometimes, we hear audio of first responders, but is that faked, too? The show never explains how it also has access to radio communication between police, for example.

When we’re not watching a dispatcher talk into a headset or type on a keyboard, we’re seeing maps that provide absolutely no helpful context, and then a whole lot of b-roll footage. If you are a fan of cell phone towers, this is the show for you: there are long, lingering shots of drones circling towers, and drones drifting over landscapes, sometimes places that seem as anonymous as an advertisement for generic stock footage.

Dispatcher Kelcey featured on ABC's Emergency Call
Dispatcher Kelcey featured on ABC’s Emergency Call. (Image from Emergency Call via ABC)

That keeps the focus on the calls, but still too much on the horror. What’s disappointing is that it means the show misses the real opportunity that’s right here: the operators themselves.

They answers calls, react in the moment and afterwards, and share insight in interviews about the challenges they face, and how they negotiate the demands of the job (talking to a child, helping someone perform CPR).

They’re the real stars, yet they’re far too anonymous, despite being the only people we see. The show jumps between dispatch centers—places including New Orleans, Louisiana; Waukesha, Wisc.; Wasilla, Alaska; and Austin, Texas—but it never really develops the dispatchers into full characters. Sometimes they share details about their lives, but they remain almost as flat as the scenery.

The show thinks its real drama is in traumatized, terrified people and/or re-recordings of those people’s worst moments, bookended by generic footage and Luke Wilson acting as hard as he can in the world’s most corny set.

It’s a noble goal to spotlight and celebrate essential workers, especially those whose roles are so vital yet so invisible from our lives. But Emergency Call fumbles its opportunity to truly profile them, and instead leans in to the sensational and voyeuristic.

I have an idea: instead of patronizing first responders and essential workers with crappy television shows, let’s just give them more money.

Emergency Call: C-

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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