The vibe was more playful than usual outside the Cook County Criminal Courts building, where the cast of USA Network’s new sitcom “Sirens” was filming its season finale on a cold and sunny day in late October.
Co-showrunners Denis Leary (“Rescue Me”) and Bob Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) sat in directors’ chairs presiding over take after take, while actors dressed as EMTs yukked it up on the sidelines.
“We can say everything but the f-word and the c-word,” star Kevin Daniels said about the cable TV comedy, debuting at 9 p.m. Thursday.
Based on a British TV series, the raunchy, irreverent sitcom revolves around a trio of emergency medical technicians who are good at saving other people’s lives — and not so good at running their own.
“Sirens” takes full advantage of the bizarre situations that can befall first responders — a topic right in the wheelhouse of Leary, who co-created and starred in FX’s long-running New York firefighter dramedy “Rescue Me.”
“On ‘Rescue Me,’ it was a very heavy show that we occasionally stuck the knife in and it made you laugh unexpectedly,” Leary told TV critics earlier this year. “Here, a couple times during the season, you’re going to be laughing your ass off and all of a sudden feel an emotional jolt.”
Daniels plays Hank, an outspoken, rabid sports fan who works for Eminent Ambulance Company. He’s also gay, like the character Daniels has portrayed on “Modern Family,” the popular ABC series whose reruns started airing last fall on USA.
The top-rated cable net is making a serious push into sitcom territory, with “Sirens” and next month’s debut of “Playing House” leading the charge.
Hank is best friends with alpha male Johnny (Michael Mosley; “Pan Am,” “Scrubs”). He still carries a torch for his ex-girlfriend, a beautiful Chicago cop named Theresa (Jessica McNamee, “The Vow”). Brian (DePaul grad Kevin Bigley) is the ambulance rig’s earnest rookie, desperate to fit in.
“He lives at home in his parents’ basement — an Evanston kid who didn’t make it into the city unless it was to see ‘Wicked,’” Bigley said. “He’s the product of an upbringing that would either produce Jeffrey Dahmer or Brian.”
In one episode, which devotes a lot of time to the topic of porn, the EMTs do a patient a solid by scrubbing a video of bawdy behavior with a horse from his computer.
The man-banter humor and language in “Sirens” can be jarringly crass at times — an unexpected pothole hit while cruising along with these generally likable characters. I’m hoping that as this otherwise promising show finds its legs, it will lighten up on the sophomoric, frat-boy laughs and reach for higher-hanging fruit.
Many of the “Sirens” stories, including objects being lodged in the body where they don’t belong, stem from real-life EMT experiences. Some come from cases in Chicago, such as a so-called “frequent flier” who kept getting his fingers cut off while woodworking.
Leary and Fisher chose Chicago because they wanted a big, multi-ethnic, post-industrial city. Some place other than New York, which is closely associated with “Rescue Me.”
“Chicago seems very American to me in a good way,” said Fisher, who’s worked on myriad shows set in the 312 region but not filmed here: “Married … With Children,” “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” “For Your Love” and “Traffic Light.” His 2013 screenplay “We’re the Millers” initially was based in Chicago before it switched to Denver.
The “Sirens” soundstage is located at the increasingly busy Cinespace studios on the Near West Side. While it’s not unusual to film a TV series in Chicago these days, comedies are a rarity.
“We shot all over the city,” Fisher said. Most of the characters’ apartments are in Wicker Park. The EMTs respond to calls from Andersonville to Lawndale, Hyde Park and Bridgeport.
“We mostly stayed out of downtown,” he said. “Whenever there’s a Chicago show, there are always people walking over one of those bridges having a deep conversation. We tried to get away from that.”
Chicago native and former “Saturday Night Live” star Nora Dunn has a guest role on the show, along with familiar “Rescue Me” faces Lenny Clarke and John Scurti. Cast members include local theater actors Maura Kidwell, Kristen Fitzgerald and Northwestern grad Kelly O’Sullivan, as an EMT named Voodoo who scrapbooks photos of gross things encountered on the job.
Josh Segarra, who plays Voight’s ne’er-do-well son on NBC’s “Chicago P.D.,” does double duty as a cop on “Sirens,” which bumps up the number of current first-responder shows filmed in Chicago to three. That’s a lot of fake fire trucks, ambulances and squad cars.
“It would be funny if the ‘Chicago Fire’ and ‘Sirens’ guys were eating tacos somewhere, a real incident broke out and people expected them to do something about it,” Fisher said.
One actor you won’t see in “Sirens’” 10-episode season is Leary.
“I sit at the monitor,” he said. “I smoke and I laugh and drink coffee. It’s the f—ing greatest job yet.”