Twenty years ago on this very day, the greatest TV show of all time aired its first episode.
No, not The West Wing. A little show called Third Watch.
It was never the biggest show of all time. It was never the most celebrated show of all time. Hell, it’s a show that many of you probably have never heard of.
But for 132 episodes across six seasons, it was a show that went about its business and brought some incredible episodes, acting performances and action that never really got the credit it fully deserved.
The show was the brainchild of ER executive producer John Wells and up and coming writer and former Chicago cop Ed Allen Bernero. It told the stories of the police, firefighters and paramedics in New York City in the fictional 55th district. A large portion of the hype around the show centred from the connection to ER, which at the time was still the number one show on American television.
The cast was made up of a mixture of unknown and established actors, with a large ensemble cast of nine for the first episode. This included a spread of four police officers (Molly Price, Jason Wiles, Skipp Sudduth and Coby Bell), four paramedics (Michael Beach, Anthony Ruivivar, Kim Raver and Bobby Cannavale) and one firefighter (Eddie Cibrian) to make up that inaugural main cast.
Ratings were never incredible but also never terrible. The first season ended just outside the top 50 shows of the year, before climbing to 46th in 2000/01 for the stellar second season, 38th in 2001/02 and peaking at 36th for the 2002/03 season. A drop to 62nd for season 5 and a slight climb to 55th (a fitting number) for the final season showed that it was never a juggernaut that it deserved to be, but still had a solid enough fan base to help it last six full seasons. A lot of this could also be attributed to the fact its broadcaster NBC shafted it around through seven different time changes over the six years it was on air as it seemingly struggled to know exactly what they wanted to do with Third Watch. Considering 14 years after it finished the network has a series of similar shows on air (all of the Chicago shows anyone?), it is baffling to think why it was never able to give it the proper treatment it ultimately deserved.
I’ve long been a huge defender of Third Watch and it has always been the show I answer when I get the “what is your favourite TV show” question asked of me. This of course if perfectly evident in my Top 50 TV shows of all time article I wrote this year and it was a list that I always knew what my number one answer would be. Why though? Why does this show always hold up higher than anything I have watched since? And given I have watched A LOT of television since, that itself is a loaded question.
The simple answer is the show just drew me in like a tractor beam. Everything just worked. The acting, the setting, the music. It connected with me in a way I had never felt before. As an avid ER fan, I could feel a similar style that clearly was from the DNA of John Wells. Wells wanted to bring an “ER on the street” show to the air using a large amount of storylines he had worked on for ER that just couldn’t work in an emergency room setting. And it was clear as day that it could perfectly transition across into that street setting, with captivating characters and the perfect backdrop of New York City as a main character itself.
The pure natural chemistry between all the cast just made you want to know them. You wanted to learn more and more about them every single week which is the prime factor in making a great television show. You wanted to see through the cracks of characters like Bosco and Carlos and know that deep down they were guys you wanted to hang out with and they would want to hang out with you. You wanted to be supported by the likes of Kim and Bobby as well as see them get together and be the super attractive and cool couple that you would tell all your friends about. You wanted to learn more about Davis and Sully and just see if the younger rookie Ty could crack the older, wiser Sully and make him feel close to a partner again. You were in awe at the caring nature of Doc and Yokas and how they were able to maintain a calm stature while dealing with daily trials and tragedies. And you were in absolute awe at how somebody could be as good looking as Jimmy and be lucky enough to be a firefighter and basically be pure sex on a stick for men and women alike. It was a perfect blended mix of character and chemistry from the main cast, which mixed in with some incredible writing brought about the final polished result that I fell in love with.
It all of course wasn’t just the original cast that made the show incredible. The addition of Amy Carlson in season 2 and Tia Texada in season 4 gave us some great storylines around these new characters. This also continued Third Watch being well ahead of its time in portraying strong female characters. This was always done in a way that was never forced down your throat too, with each of the female characters on the same level as their male counterparts without being told otherwise. And it was fantastic to watch. I would argue that Texada had maybe the most in-depth arc across her entire run of the show and brought some incredible layers to her incredibly tough character, as well as also claiming the overall ‘star’ of the show based purely on her consistent edit and prominence in the overall plot was Faith Yokas played by the incredibly underrated Molly Price. Having these two work opposite each other and be long term rivals added to the watchability factor of the show and these incredible characters, once again proving how great of a show Third Watch was when it came to female leads.
Other main cast introduced over the years included Chris Bauer, Bonnie Dennison, Nia Long, Josh Stewart and Cara Buono. All brought their own unique takes on their characters and added their own stamp on the show. I would also include Yvonne Jung in that category, however she was sadly never recognised as a main cast member which is one of the biggest travesties to ever occur on the show.
Other travesties also happened, mainly in the form of the severe lack of recognition in major award ceremonies such as the Emmys and Golden Globes. This can be seen in particular when it comes to the acting categories, with pretty much every single actor absolutely robbed of not even receiving a nomination for their efforts. Skipp Sudduth in Last Call easily has the most to complain about here (a small fact that we may have changed on Wikipedia when podcasting about that episode), as well as Jason Wiles for A Call For Help, Michael Beach for No More, Forever and pretty much every episode Molly Price was involved in. How not even one nomination was received by anyone across six seasons remains a massive mystery to me.
There was some slight recognition for the show in the major awards. Third Watch did receive one Emmy in 2000 for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series and also took home the prestigious Peabody Award for a special documentary episode around September 11 called In Their Own Words. This episode featured interviews with first responders and family members from emergency services involved 9/11 and aired 5 weeks after the attacks. It was one of three episodes aired dealing with the terrible events on that day and despite the controversy around having to air episodes so quick after it happened, it proved how great Third Watch truly was and by far was the one show that handled the attacks the best.
It has to also be said that there has been success in the form of several of the main actors going onto some great success. Bobby Cannavale by far has found the most success since leaving the show, becoming a household name through numerous TV shows and movie appearances. Kim Raver and Eddie Cibrian have both added their names to a large portion of other projects, with Michael Beach also continuing to go strong. This is undercut however by the baffling question of how people such as Molly Price, Jason Wiles and Tia Texada haven’t exactly found the success after Third Watch that they deserve, as well as the other outstanding actors who made this show their own.
So my absolute love of the show I feel can be expressed purely in everything that I have summed up above. This also doesn’t scratch on the surface of other moments, such as the comedy, action and music which connect you even deeper to what you are watching on screen. Then there are the incredible guest stars the show landed over the years, some of which include the likes of Roy Scheider, JK Simmons, Wyclef Jean, Gene Simmons, Henry Winkler, Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis and Helen Mirren just to name a few. Add in an incredible crossover episode with ER that connects the worlds together and you have more evidence as to the greatness that is Third Watch.
I for one will be celebrating the occasion today by reminiscing on the show that I love the most and thinking about my 12-year-old self watching this show for the very first time 20 years ago. I could’ve never imagined that at the time I would be here 20 years later talking about it, defending it and still gushing and glowing about just how ultimately great Third Watch was. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have interviewed several cast members over the years, especially since my podcast The Oz Network has taken up the task of recapping every single episode, becoming the first ever podcast to do so. I also was lucky to host a 20 year reunion episode yesterday with 6 former cast members and co-creator Bernero joining me to remember the show and be the only actual reunion that is happening to celebrate the occasion. My 12-year-old self on that first occasion watching the show could never have believed I would be so lucky.
So while the television world celebrates 25 years of Friends and ER, 20 years of The West Wing and 15 years of Lost, let’s take a moment to also commemorate the greatest television to ever exist and the one show that you need to remind yourself existed and deserves more love.