I like Rescue Me because it is all things: comic, dramatic, experimental, music-filled and haunting. Some shows would be diminished for trying to do this much. Rescue Me, the work of star/producer/creator Denis Leary (that’s him, on the Brooklyn Bridge) and Peter Tolan, does it all beautifully and well. If the pieces stand better on their own than all together some weeks, well, joy is in the moment, wouldn’t you agree?
1. It’s the ghosts.
FX, which shows Rescue Me in the U.S., and Showcase, which shows it Sundays in Canada, call Rescue Me a workplace drama about the lives of the firefighters on NYC’s 62 Truck. And it is that. You never know what story is going to walk into the firehouse or out of a burning building. But this show never forgets where it started: Five seasons back, in 2004, the talk was all about it being the uber post-9/11 drama. Tommy Gavin (Leary) was a firefighter traumatized by his involvement with rescue work on both the first and second World Trade Centre towers and, especially, the loss that day of his cousin, a fellow firefighter, who still occasionally appears to him as a ghost.
The first season had Tommy in denial of the ghosts, who grew to include all the others he couldn’t save: children with burned faces, people asking impossible questions. And then his brother, a cop, was killed on the job. And his son was killed by a car. Then his combative father, sitting peacefully (for once) beside him at a Mets game, turned out to be dead of a heart attack.
There are a lot of ghosts now, but Tommy no longer waits for them. Since the arrival early this season of a sexy (of course) French journalist and her revealing video of the Sept. 11, 2001, Tommy tossed aside his hard-won sobriety to summon the ghosts. Was he ready to leave them all behind? And what if you love and miss your ghosts?
This has led to some heartbreakingly beautiful scenes this season. Alone late at night at the unlicensed club he runs with his coworkers, Tommy knocks one back and turns to discover his family ghosts arriving one by one, each taking a turn to accuse him of cowardice and weakness. The very play-like scene climaxes with Tommy exploding in a tirade that nails WWII, Vietnam, 9/11 and the high cost of the American hero complex.
Watch this. It’s Season 5, Episode 8, Iceman. And sorry about the type on the screen; best I could find on YouTube and it’s been bumped off Showcase’s video player.
2. No, it’s the comedy.
If you’ve never seen Rescue Me and you’ve read this far, you might think it’s an intense, harrowing show, but that’s only occasionally, sparingly true. Most of the time, it’s Tommy and the firehouse lads larking about. Take the title scene from last week’s episode, No. 18, called Carrot. Click on Part 4, in which Garrity — still out on sick leave — drops by to get help with a little problem. Like all such scenes, and most weeks have them, it’s crude and involves talk about bodily functions and sex parts. Not your cup of tea? I think you’re in the wrong blog post, pal, and definitely in the wrong TV show. If you can take it, it will make you hit pause and rewind at least a couple of times.
However, I like it for more than the extremeness. Of course it’s welcome relief from the series’ dramatic intensity, but the comedy scenes are like a sketch show within a show. You don’t need to know that Garrity recently lost a kidney to cancer or that Mike has a new band or than Lou lost his heart and thousands of dollars to a hooker who’s trying to reel him in again. It’s just a bunch of guys cracking wise. Anyway, here’s the scene.
3. Okay it’s definitely the music.
It’s now de rigueur for self-respecting TV series to make good use of good music, but Leary all but wrote that book. From the killer theme song — The Von Bondies’ C’mon C’mon — to, say, Ryan Adams’ Blue Manhattan, this show has a playlist to die for. Except no mortal act is required because it also has a music section on the FX website that lists songs played for each episode and also gives info about Apache Stone, the new band fronted by Michael Lombardi in real life and by Mike Silletti on the show. You won’t be surprised, if you saw the band play two episodes back, that they have an album on iTunes.
But to best illustrate music used under and over a scene, watch the fifth and final part of Episode 17, from a couple of weeks back, called Lesbos. This refers partly to the starting storyline, in which Franco’s girlfriend, furious that he (and the guys at the firehouse) accused her of being a lesbian, flooded their fundraiser with hot chicks who had no interest in their horndog selves. It also, more importantly, describes Tommy’s life — ruled by women, his ex, Janet (the blonde) and his cousin’s widow, Sheila, the brunette.
But at about the seven-minute mark, you get what is a common brilliant use of music on Rescue Me. There’s a fire call, and the action slows as they approach and are then engulfed by the fire, gathering lost children and falling through doors, floors and then back to the street. The piece de resistance in this episode-ender is the suitcase. You should watch.
4. Addicted to addiction.
Addiction is a serious thing. It’s also seriously interesting to TV creators. You have your House, a taciturn but brilliant doctor played by Hugh Laurie. More recently, there’s Nurse Jackie, an unravelling hospital nurse played by Edie Falco. Other examples are legion. What distinguishes Rescue Me is that it takes addiction seriously but not too seriously.
Last season, Tommy went from being completely out of control to stone sober. The scene in which he and his surviving family stage their own AA group meeting was high camp. This season, where is Tommy going with his supposedly controlled drinking? Will he crash and burn before the season wraps up over the next three episodes? Or, now that he’s convinced his entire family to start drinking again, will that keep him in line? I like that his drinking is played for comedy and drama. I like the daring of it. I also like that it’s not neatly tied up. Shit happens and it keeps happening. And sometimes it’s funny.
5. Ensemble acting.
I’ll get my one beef out of the way: the broads get screwed. Literally and figuratively. Tommy’s ex, his mistress, his sister… okay his youngest daughter is exempt because of age — all female characters exist only to have sex with these guys. Sure, it’s a guy show, but still. It’s a little narrow for a show that has such long reach in so many other directions.
Now, back to the love fest.
Leary is the spine of this show, no question. But he’s surrounded by excellent performers in roles that suit them very well. In other shows, you can all but here the agents whining in the background demanding their actor clients get their closeups (well, hello Grey’s Anatomy!). Here, nothing feels forced. Franco (Daniel Sunjata) has had his moments early this season as a 9/11 conspiracist, thumped into submission by tiny Sheila (Callie Thorne): What’s a hobby to you, she said, is a dead husband to me. Snap. Garrity (Steven Pasquale) was hit by cancer, but even in the face of death, he dorked out, hallucinating a musical scene that was both loopy and — even if you don’t like that sort of thing — impressive. Possibly the best moment of stepping into the spotlight was early in this season when Tommy’s ex, Janet (Andrea Roth), gets ripping drunk on their trip to their daughter’s boarding school. If her truth-telling outburst at the dinner table was not hilarious enough, she goaded Tommy into sex that broke the door of the room in the B&B. Now that’s good fun.
If you’re new to Rescue Me, watch the last four episodes on Showcase’s video player. Click here and then click on Rescue Me.
If you’re a fan, you know there are three episodes left, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showcase. You also know that FX wrapped up the season not long ago so you can probably cheat and find out what happened. But we’re Canadian. We’re used to getting screwed by broadcast delays. We are strong. And if you’re not strong, keep it to yourself, hm?
– Denise Duguay