It's been nearly a year since Rescue Me's rather disappointing fifth season finale, a finale that, sadly, put a pretty underwhelming cap on what was a good season and a return to form for the show after two seasons that walked the line between outright bad and interesting but full of borderline offensive elements. There were remarkably strong episodes in season five, some of the best of the show's run, but the season very slowly deflated after it reached a certain point, always reliably entertaining but never figuring out a way to finally pull its story of Tommy Gavin falling off the wagon yet again into something new and interesting. Rescue Me is a show that's often hard to review, simply because it produces fun episodes but is so erratic, often rolling from great to terrible over the course of a single scene. And forget trying to look to this show for a tightly plotted master narrative. It's not like a season plot on this show doesn't make sense; it's more like the show is a rambling, shaggy dog story that never goes anywhere.
And yet, when Rescue Me is good, it's sort of transcendent. Jaime Weinman described Glee as "scattershot drama," comparing it to the scattershot comedy of shows like 30 Rock and Family Guy. Then he tries to think of other examples of scattershot drama and comes up lacking. Honestly, though, Rescue Me almost fits the bill. Nearly every scene is a little story unto itself. Very few of them add up together into a natural progression. Episodic storylines rarely exist, and a season-long storyline is something you can pretty much forget about. But within those individual scenes, the show can do great, transcendent things, and when it strings 10 or 11 of them together, it turns out a great, transcendent episode.
I'm half temped to review every episode of Rescue Me on a scene-by-scene basis this season, giving each scene a grade (and if there's sufficient demand, I'll review at least one this way), but for now, we should probably stick to a more traditional review. The sixth season of Rescue Me has to start with some degree of resolution for how last season ended. Last season, if you've forgotten, ended with Tommy bleeding out on the floor of the bar after being shot by his uncle, Teddy. Rescue Me is fond of doing these sorts of cliffhangers, where we know Tommy's not in actual danger, and then it doesn't really bother with the follow-through. How does it do this time? Well …
The first scene of the episode is one of those things the show does well. The series has always had a finely tuned eye for a weird, masculine mysticism, and its vision of a fireman's heaven, where all of the dead firefighters stand up from a floor amid a field of smoke and head toward the proverbial white light is a great, minimalist conception of the afterlife. Cousin Jimmy is there, and he calls out the names of all of the other firemen Tommy will see when he passes over to the other side. But, for some reason, Tommy seems unable or unwilling to press forward. And he's plunged into hell, which is also done on a minimalist budget and similarly haunting. Tommy's trapped in a corridor of a burning building, haunted by the people he was unable to save and the specters of those he's left behind on Earth with unfinished business. Both halves of this afterlife conception are gripping, and I wish the show had spent more time there, perhaps devoted an episode or two to Tommy coming back to the land of the living.
The most obvious ancestor for Rescue Me has always been The Sopranos. Creators Peter Tolan and Denis Leary have cited it frequently as a touchstone for the show, and this is just the latest direct lift the show has taken from the earlier one. This isn't a bad thing. Rescue Me, like The Sopranos, is a deeply Catholic show, with a heavily Catholic conception of the universe, and a visit to the afterlife is almost a prerequisite for this kind of show. (Another great show with heavy Catholic influences, St. Elsewhere, also took a lengthy trip to the other side.) Maybe Leary and Tolan were leery of so directly copying The Sopranos (which also featured its protagonist heading to the other side after a nearly fatal gunshot wound), but I honestly think the series worked a little too hard to restore the status quo in this episode. Because going from Tommy waking up in the ambulance just before the credits right back to the normal action of the show feels like a bit of a copout, as though the show is ignoring some pretty significant events.
Now, enough lip service is paid to these events throughout the episode that I'm sure the show will revisit them. But "Legacy" probably could have been so much more if it had lingered for a little while instead of just going back to futzing around with the guys. Obviously, there's fun to be had in the firehouse, and the firehouse scenes tonight are all well-done, but the series is approaching its end date, most likely, and it doesn't seem like it's going to give a good sense of the toll of everything that's happened to Tommy over the course of the series. So much bad stuff has happened to this guy that it feels almost unreal, and every time the series starts to get into issues of sin and punishment and karma, it's a markedly better show (as it was in last year's "Torch"). Instead, it seems content to just kind of go back to the way everything was and try and make Tommy trying to kick the booze interesting again. He's back at it by episode's end, drinking and smoking in a church, but he's also watching himself do so from the pews, so that's something new, I guess.
At a certain point, I think, you have to decide whether or not you're going to go along with a show that does a bunch of stuff you don't like and some other stuff you do like. Almost all of the scenes in tonight's episode with the women in Tommy's life were pretty much abhorrent, and it was similarly galling to see that Tommy's oldest daughter is going to grow up into another Gavin woman simply because it seems like that's what women are in this universe. Particularly when the show showed a bit of an eye for looking outside of Tommy's conception of these women to see who they really were last season (as in Sheila's great monologue about losing her husband), it's no fun to see them turning back into women who merely fight over him again and again.
But then the show will do something patently ridiculous, like having Tommy's cousin drive the wrong way down the freeway with Tommy in the passenger seat. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's a great visual, and it drives home the perilous position Tommy's always been in almost better than anything else could. There are a handful of immediately arresting scenes like this scattered throughout this episode, enough to keep me interested, but I don't know if the rest is quite up to snuff. It's as if the show is trying to shake off its own malaise and continue to remember why it exists.
- Another pretty stupid scene: Tommy and Teddy now being stars at the bar where Teddy shot him. I don't mind going along with the idea that Fienberg somehow managed to convince the cops nothing happened worth reporting or with going along with the idea that Teddy is sorry about what happened. But the bar thing was a step too far.
- It seems the firehouse might be in danger of closing down. I imagine that's the season-long arc we will every so often forget even exists until it makes a rousing comeback in the final five episodes.
- If you've never read my write-ups of this show before, you should know I have a deep and abiding affection for Lou (and, no, it's "Lou," despite being derived from the word "Lieutenant," at least according to the press materials). He may be my favorite character, and I am willing to forgive almost any crappy storyline involving him if he at least gets a chance to be funny.
- "She's not singing. She's alone. She's just there."