Rescue Me is simultaneously a show at war with itself and a show entering what appears to be a rebuilding phase, and while that may not sound like a recipe for greatness, at least the show realizes that, well, it needs to rebuild.
Rescue Me bases itself around two central questions: What does it mean to be a man in America today, and how do you redefine your life in the face of an absence so all-encompassing that it reaches out to infect every part of your life? Briefly, the show’s first season succeeded at contemplating those two questions by making the loss at its center the lives lost on Sept. 11. Midway through the show’s second season, the series found itself unable to continue revisiting the terrorist attacks over and over, so it just began unleashing a huge string of random, horrendous shit on central character Tommy Gavin (series creator Denis Leary) and the various folks in his immediate circle. At some point, this stopped being affecting and started being sort of ridiculous, probably right around the second season finale, when every regular cast member’s life took a left turn into Dante’s Inferno. Last season, for example, the Chief killed himself, mostly apropos of nothing, and Tommy’s dad died at a minor league baseball game.
Those questions of masculinity also plague the show. When it’s having its characters bust each other’s balls around the firehouse’s kitchen table, there’s no better show at capturing the way guy’s guys talk to each other when they’re alone. But when it turns to these guys dealing with the women in their lives, the show has trouble staying away from casual misogyny, simply because it’s so shot through with the way the guys see themselves. It’d be one thing if just one of the women on the show was a shrewish harpy, only there to keep the guys down, but ALL of them seemingly are, and all they really want to do is sleep with Tommy, even the younger, hotter ones.
Fortunately, as mentioned, the show seems to want to rebuild (Leary apparently spent much of the one-and-a-half year break between seasons insisting season five would be better), and the fifth season premiere takes some steps in the right direction, even if it falters a bit along the way. An early scene set around that kitchen table is seemingly there to let us know that what’s always worked about the show will still work, effortlessly moving from one great joke to another, but the show also seems intent on working out some of the fourth season plotlines it probably wishes it could just forget about.
Dealing with the death of Tommy’s dad, though, makes a lot more sense than when Tommy was trying to deal with the deaths of his son (to start off season three, in the wake of the son's death at season two's end) and his brother (to start off season four). The series goes in for one of its hyperreal fantasy sequences, one of those ones that might have really happened until it goes one step too far, with an early sequence of Tommy at his father’s funeral that ends in petty vandalism of the casket. This whole thing is nowhere near as good as a later rant from Tommy after watching home movies with his family. The family watching those movies together, teary-eyed, is the kind of close-knit scene of a group of people dealing with the gaping chasm of loss their lives have rearranged themselves around that Rescue Me does so well, but Tommy’s rant, which turns into a blanket condemnation of a family dog, even one-ups that. It’s a little unbelievable, sure, but Leary has always played Tommy as ever-so-slightly theatrical, and he makes it work.
Almost as good is a later scene when Tommy sits with his fallen-off-the-wagon cousin Mick in a churchyard and discusses that dog and the ways these men have never quite matched up to their parents. Rescue Me, like The Sopranos before it, is often uniquely cognizant of the ways that the generation of men Tommy belongs to feels like it hasn’t quite matched up to its father’s generation, and this scene nicely gets at those questions without rubbing our noses in it.
But, yeah, it’s a rebuilding phase. The stuff with Tommy’s cousin’s widow Sheila still feels dropped in from another, lesser show, and despite Callie Thorne’s performance, the character just doesn’t really make sense anymore. Her obsession with Tommy long ago stopped being sad OR funny, and now it just feels like more ego-stroking for Leary, since all of the women on this show must sleep with him and/or feel intense lust for him when they’re not (seriously, Gina Gershon?!). Similarly, Tommy’s on-again, off-again thing with his ex-wife Janet keeps playing the same notes over and over, though having Michael J. Fox show up as her playful new boyfriend holds some promise for the future.
The show has also tended to use its excellent supporting cast poorly in the past, though there are nods to giving them things to do this season. Black Shawn is sleeping with Tommy’s daughter but not having sex with her. Mike, Sean and Franco are planning to buy a bar. And Lou, well, Lou will get stuff to do because John Scurti just takes whatever he’s given in any given episode and makes the most out of it. If season four was just too much of a tour of Leary’s id, then the season five premiere still leans a little too much in this direction. The fact that there are at least hints of things to come for the supporting players gives me hope.
The most promising development, though, stems from Deputy Chief Feinberg (who’s weirdly buddy-buddy with Tommy after writing him up for a Section Eight) telling the guys that a French journalist is going to be coming to interview the firefighters about the events of Sept. 11 for a book to be published on the tenth anniversary of the day. Rescue Me’s first season was so good because it was about a group of men struggling to put a day the whole country couldn’t put behind it behind them, and now that the attacks are things most of us no longer think about daily, it seems as good a time as any for the show to unbury them and see what power they still have over the characters and, by proxy, us.
It all concludes to a musical montage (yet another weakness of this show) to Gutter Twins’ “Front Street.” The guys have to leave a burning high-rise after Sean is injured and the hydrants there are discovered to have no water in them to douse the flames. While I’m not the biggest fan of the way the show uses music to underline every single point, this one was good and eerie, the guys looking up into the flames to see a figure silhouetted against them, someone they had not gotten out in time. The man waved, then stepped back into the flames to be consumed, even as Tommy and crew tried to race back into the building to save him. Rescue Me is at its best when it’s not focusing on those doing the leaving, but those left behind, struggling to comprehend how a life can be just consumed by flame.
—The fire-fighting sequences on this show are another thing it rarely screws up, and the early scene, of the guys taking refuge as illegal fireworks blew up around them, was one of the better ones the show has cooked up.
—Anybody watch that Rescue Me premiere party feature that played before the episode? Man, that hat Scurti was wearing was the greatest hat in the history of hats. Also, FX sure seems invested in Sons of Anarchy as its next big drama series from all the promos they ran tonight.
—“The next ass I tap is the ass I marry.” “Oh, yeah, that’s sweet. I’d like to see that on a sampler.”