There are lots of contrasts in being a fire-fighter. A lot of the time is spent on relatively low level tasks around the fire house while waiting for the bell to ring, or out on pretty basic call outs like rescuing proverbial cats from trees. That seems to provide an opportunity for playing childish pranks, moping and a fair amount of moonlighting on side projects. But when the alarm does go for a real emergency, the characters (mostly) switch into professional mode – working through their well trained procedures. Walking into burning buildings is literally the day job, and although the training and equipment make it safer, it’s still unpredictable and risky. It’s a contrast between day to day monotony and strict processes and the chaos and danger of things on fire.
Meanwhile the fire-fighters all have personal lives as well. They’re a group of people who rely on each other and form a complex network of relationships. Then you’ve got life outside the station, what’s it like to be the family of a fire-fighter? There are practical issues such as the shift work, terrible pay and unpredictable hours; but also the stress of not knowing if they’re safe and dealing with the emotional and physical fall out when things go wrong. No one involved is a superhero, they all make mistakes and poor choices that have knock on effects back and forth between personal and private lives.
While that all sounds great (or at least it does to me), keeping that all in play is a really complicated balancing act and sadly for the most part The Smoke just doesn’t manage it. Rather than merging it all together it’s like a gritty action drama is switching back and forth with a messy soap opera with convoluted relationships, pantomime villains and over-blown reactions. Each episode swerving back and forth across the complete range, occasionally hitting on moments of brilliance but not really bringing them together into a cohesive whole.
The unevenness continued through the dialogue and acting. Some of the characters, in some situations had a wonderfully fresh and realistic tone. They actually behaved how real life people do, their words felt fresh and raw rather than overly rehearsed and scripted, their responses felt realistic as if the words were genuinely coming from their brains in those situations, not the writers room on a fourth redraft. Unfortunately that generally didn’t follow through consistently for some of the secondary characters, and was also abandoned wholesale when necessary to move the plot along. Jamie Bamber is very watchable (although his accent is often painful) but it’s Jodie Whittaker who really steals the show.
The most obvious comparison for the show is Chicago Fire, but in many ways that only tells half the story. Chicago Fire is pure soap opera, everything is turned up to 11 and many of the stories/relationships could just as easily take place in an office as in a fire house (although there’d be less reason for all the blokes to take their tops off). By having simple aims, Chicago Fire delivers what it sets out to do. You may not like it, but it is successful. The Smoke however tries to do more and when it fails, it falls further. I did find it very watch-able, the moments when it succeeds were interesting, original and worth a certain amount of eye rolling through the places where it fails. But I’m not sure that I will bother to watch the second season.