A Second Viewing of the Third Watch

Third Watch: The Complete Second SeasonSometimes, its amazing what you see when you look at something the second time.

Or watch something the second time, as the case may be. Several years ago, a television series called Third Watch grabbed my attention. In case you’ve never become familiar with the series, it was a drama based on the lives of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs working the third watch (the evening shift) in New York City. This was really good television, capturing what first responders deal with  each day, and how it impacts their personal lives. The show appeared before September 11th…that is, it aired from 1999, before programs about first responders were as fashionable. It continued through, and long after, September 11th, going on to win a Peabody Award, among other critical acclaim.

I think that I was attracted to the show because I briefly entertained the idea that I wanted to work in law enforcement when I finished college (go ahead…laugh). While law enforcement has rightfully held its place as an interest and not a career choice for me, I’ve always had a soft spot for police dramas. They’re sort of a guilty pleasure. I recognized Third Watch, from when I first enjoyed the series until it tragically ended while I was in grad school in 2005, as great drama, and well acted.

I was either too busy to see the depth of the writing, or else my rhetorical skills just weren’t developed well for television viewing, in the show’s early years. I recently re-discovered the show through Netflix, and began watching season 2 again. There’s some fascinating writing at play, here.

The over-arching theme of the program, at least in its beginning, was everyone’s need for a hero. From the opening credit music (a techno piece called “Keep Hope Alive” by The Crystal Method), the viewer is set up to realize his/her need for a hero, for someone to come to their rescue when the worst occurs. We are then introduced to the real-life heroes of the first responders, those who risk their own safety to help those they don’t know. The heroism is depicted is well-shot, edge-of-your-seat action sequences that come from nowhere and end just as abruptly…just as though we were experiencing them in real life. The first responders sweep in and save the day, and we see their camaraderie develop as they have to deal with what they’ve experienced. We see this camaraderie grow even more when they don’t manage to save the day, despite their best efforts.

Season 2, however, opens with a series of episodes dedicated to specific characters. In these episodes, we are walked through how each character’s personal struggles and flaws have a reciprocal effect on how they do their jobs, and what their jobs do to them. We see a paramedic who gets into trouble because he can’t reconcile an ideal with the reality of racism he sees (and sometimes imposes over reality) around him. We see a police officer who can’t make ends meet financially, and lies to her husband and her partner to cover an abortion because of her fear that she can’t afford another child. We see a police officer haunted by his deceased father’s infidelity, and a paramedic who stands precariously on the edge of instability in her longing to put her failed marriage back together.

These episodes are interesting, because they present the heroes as not only very human, but sometimes very questionable in their motivations. Later in season 2, in an episode called “Know Thyself,” one of the police officers tells another, “Sometimes the things that make you a good cop make you a bad person.” The heroes we turn to in our time of need, those who we rely on to make us safe, are unable to be heroes out of any sort of pure benevolence. Even when they are close to the ideal, their own lives are crumbling when they are not “in costume,” as it were, as heroes. Thus, Third Watch assumes a theme similar in many ways to The Watchmen, in that we are presented with a sort of anti-hero; each doing their best, but hopelessly tainted by the very evil they fight.

The episodes dealing with individual characters’ struggles move into a gripping episode early in season 2 called “After Hours.” In the beginning of the episode, the characters have arrived on the scene of a fiery car accident, seconds too late to prevent the vehicle from exploding and all of its occupants dying. Despite their hidden grief, life moves on, and the shift ends. After the shift, groups of them (characters we haven’t previously seen spend time together outside of work) go out, some for coffee and some for alcohol, in an effort to cope with what they have seen. One gets hopelessly intoxicated, one tries to sleep with another, one drives recklessly through the streets in his muscle car, returning to the scene of the accident. All of them encounter teenagers in their outings. The teenagers help them in some cases, and in other cases they lead them into situations that they are able to affect positively (two of the off-duty police officers are able to intervene in a mugging while walking a girl unsuccessful in catching a bus home through the park). One officer, who is about to resign after what he has seen tonight, walks a teenager home, and encounters a man he saved from committing suicide who thanks him and tells him that he has a successful life now. Others see redeeming things about themselves. All end up back at the scene of the accident, and go to watch the sun rise on the beach, standing by each other in their time of need. Ultimately, through flashback, the viewer realizes that the teenagers that the characters have encountered are the ghosts of the people who died in the car accident earlier that night…four high school students driving intoxicated to their homecoming.

After seeing the characters presented as hopelessly flawed human beings who are attempting to somehow be heroes to others, the viewer is now presented with an image of grace for their flaws…just as they fail in their heroism, even as the characters struggle to forgive themselves (two of them insist to each other, “We got there as fast as we could.”).  The ghosts of those they couldn’t save come back, as though to recognize that the characters did their best, and help them to recognize why they do what they do, even leading them to further acts of heroism. The episode closes with a song called “Give Me Strength” by Over the Rhine, asking for “strength to find the road that’s lost in me,” and “time to heal and build myself a dream.” The lyrics seem to embody both the voices of those saved by the heroes, and the cries of the heroes themselves.

Third Watch presents a idealistic image of a hero…almost of a super hero…in modern society: those who risk literally everything to routinely go out in search of evil, and attempt to protect its potential victims. In doing so, they lose themselves, unable to live a full life because of the sacrifices they make for others, and often unable to even protect themselves from the very evil they battle.  

What’s so fascinating about Third Watch is its gritty exploration of the spiritual truth that we all find ourselves in need of a hero, and we all take that hero for granted. We also see than no human being is capable of the superhuman heroism that we will all long for at some point in our lives…that we are looking for a hero who is more than human. Third Watch brings the best of super-hero fiction and places it in the context of the daily lives of first responders.

There’s so much more to this series than I saw the first time through.

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