‘Chicago 2-1-2’: The Proto-’Chicago Fire’

An old Chicago TV pilot celebrates a time when men were men, public-safety officials were stiff bureaucrats in gray suits, and propaganda was really boring.

The latest attempt to make network TV drama from Chicago public-safety officials is Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire, following the late and rarely lamented Chicago Code. It’s a long and rarely proud tradition (see also: Chicago Story), dating back to at least 1957 and Chicago 2-1-2. It was a (failed) pilot, and the final episode of “Cavalcade of America,” DuPont’s long-running radio-and-TV series that served as a sometimes-subtle, sometimes-not bit of gentle propaganda for the American way:

On the one hand we may see The Cavalcade of America as an honest attempt by the creators to place a finger on the pulse of the nation. The characters of the Cavalcade typify the definition of a classical hero, embodying the archetypal characteristics and standing as larger-than-life examples to the American populace. When we meet General Washington he is called the American Cincinnatus, a new hero growing directly from the old traditions. At the same time, however, these American heroes are a new breed, born not of another time long past or another far-away place, but sprung from the people: democratic heroes for the great democracy. They are new heroes for a new nation. As the Cavalcade picks who will be called a hero in this nation, it defines who America is by delineating what we value and aspire to become.

In Chicago 2-1-2, the American hero is a fire inspector, from the time that men were men and also ploddingly effective and totally uncharismatic bureaucrats, like Dragnet but without the insane cultural paranoia. But the real moral of the story is “don’t hire a pyromaniac to commit arson,” the insurance-fraud version of “don’t get high on your own supply.”

That Chicago 2-1-2 didn’t get picked up isn’t much of a surprise, though it did launch the career of former Irv Kupcinet copyboy Roy Thinnes, whose career has spanned everything from The Invaders to Falcon Crest to The X-Files to Oz; beloved WBBM/WGN late-night host Franklyn MacCormack plays the guy who dramatically shoves a cigar into the corner of his mouth.

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