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'Chicago Fire' Exploits Ghost Ship Victims in a Moral Lowpoint for TV

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Elias Koteas as Alvin Olinsky in the 'Chicago Fire' episode, 'Deathtrap.' (Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

By now, you may have heard of tonight’s episode of Chicago Fire, a “ripped from the headlines” story based on the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36 people.

If you think adapting the horrific events of Dec. 2 just two months after the tragedy for an episode titled “Deathtrap” is exploitative and in bad taste, you’re not alone. If NBC were honest, it wouldn’t advertise tonight’s programming as “ripped from the headlines.” It’s ripped from the Bay Area’s heart. I implore you not to watch.

Here’s the casting call for extras, first acquired by the Mercury News:

“GHOST SHIP” — Seeking Men & Women 20s-30s to play rave party goers. Types can range from edgy/artsy to bohemian *DISCLAIMER* This is A VERY ACTIVE SCENE that entails running and screaming as party goers try to escape a warehouse fire. THIS WILL BE USED AS SURVEILLANCE VIDEO FOOTAGE in the episode. Please do not submit if you are not comfortable with the level of physicality or any other aspect of the scenario. This is a double duty shoot, where you will work in the memoriam scene first and then move on the the party/fire scene. There MAY be use of a light smoke/fog effect in the fire scene, so let us know if you are not comfortable with that.

Dick Wolf in 2010.
‘Chicago Fire’ producer Dick Wolf in 2010. (Angela George)

If anyone at NBC happened to raise the concern of “too soon,” here’s their answer: people are still holding memorials. I first heard of the network’s plans while mourners were sound-checking for a Ghost Ship tribute concert at Grace Cathedral. That’s too soon.

I then heard that the Ghost Ship narrative would be spread out among not one but three shows, including Chicago PD and Chicago Justice, in a “crossover television event!”, the same day I visited a memorial mural honoring the 36 people who died painted just days prior. That’s too soon.


But let’s be clear: Even if a year had passed already, this type of craven story-stealing is not art. This is lazy television, as uninspired as the billionth Hollywood sequel, and just as crass. This is producer Dick Wolf, fresh from a five-year deal that a Variety source calls “the best (profit) definition in all of television,” latching onto a horrific disaster for ratings. This is taking the Bay Area’s pain, taking families’ grief, taking the deaths of three dozen young people and ch-chinging all the way to Nielsen.

In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising. Wolf’s shows, including Law & Order, routinely mine current events for plot ideas; last year, as many have pointed out, Law & Order: SVU did an episode about the San Bernardino attack.

Also, at a certain point, we knew this story no longer belonged to us. On the weekend of the fire, the national media descended upon Oakland. They knocked on doors and called families and friends nonstop, looking for anyone to offer up their grief and cry on camera. At a certain point within the week, people started saying no, distrusting the pattern of being turned into emotional carrion for viewers. They started shutting down and declining interviews. They saw the game for what it was.

Television couldn’t have real people to talk about the fire anymore. So it had to make up its own.

This is not art. I already said that. But it bears repeating. Because those people who died in the fire? They made art. Which is another reason why I’m strongly suggesting not watching the “crossover television event” tonight.

Here are a few things I want you to do instead:

Listen to Johnny Igaz’s electronic music. Watch some of Alex Ghassan’s short films and music videos. Check out Kiyomi Tanouye’s nail art. Listen to Chelsea Faith Dolan’s latest EP. Watch Joey Casio talk about his music. Watch Ara Jo play keyboards in her band. See Jonathan Bernbaum’s lighting visuals at a huge music festival. Listen to Cash Askew’s music in Them Are Us Too. Look at the detailed illustrations by Jason McCarty. Watch Jenny Morris sing a sweet love song with her ukelele. Listen to music from Ben Runnels and Denalda Nicole Renae’s band, Introflirt.

The list goes on and on; you can find many more artists collected at our memorial page here.

NBC wants to steal three hours from you tonight by plundering a painful, horrible disaster with “rave party goers” trapped in a warehouse, “running and screaming.” Use that time instead to familiarize yourself with those who died, the lives they led, and the many, many creative contributions they gave to the world.


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