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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rescue Me: "Sanctuary"

Illustration for article titled Rescue Me: "Sanctuary"
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Any time a series comes to the end of its run, no matter how much of a standalone show it's been over the years, that series has to confront just how it's going to wrap up its story. A show like Cheers, for example, didn't need to put a bow on everything (even though it did), but it did need to answer a few basic questions: Does Sam pursue a romance with any one of the women he's dated? What happens to the bar? What happens to the people in the bar? The show could have just suggested that life went on as it always had, and we were no longer looking in, and that would have been a perfectly valid ending. But every show needs to choose what KIND of ending it's going to give us.

Rescue Me is in full-on end game mode. Tommy's trying harder than ever to quit drinking and his many other vices, even calling in Father Peter Gallagher to help him out. Why? Well, he's realized what a mess his daughter is when she drinks and just how much danger he put her in during his blackout in the last episode. So he's making a real effort to change his ways. At the same time, we've got quite a few episodes of this show left. It's easy to believe that maybe, just maybe, there will be another backslide before the end, that Tommy will unlearn the lessons he's learned and return to his old ways, simply because it's easier. It seems more and more likely to me that the producers of Rescue Me see the series as a basic redemption narrative (hence all the Christian imagery sprinkled throughout the series and ladled on in this final set of episodes). This means that at some point, Tommy will really change, will really begin his steps toward a new life, one that Sept. 11, his own death, the deaths of everyone around him, and the endangerment of his daughter weren't enough to set him on that path.

But the problem with Rescue Me is that if it had done all of this in, say, season three, it would have become one of the best shows on TV ever. Even if it had done it in season five, it would have been able to save itself. But there's the small matter of the third and fourth seasons, not to mention much of the back half of the fifth season. The show has robbed the end game of its power because it's played out so many elements of it before. The only thing that's really new this time out is the fact that Colleen is now a drunk, and it's not like that's so radically different from things the show has done previously as to be shocking enough to make the show feel new again. To a real degree, we've been here and done all of this, and that robs moments that should have power - real power - of their dramatic heft.

As an example, take that scene where Tommy is sitting at the firehouse kitchen table, unable to move, unable to go out and respond to the call the guys have been called out on. He sits and sits, no matter what Needles says to him, and you can see the look of terror in his face and the look of disbelief in Needles' face. But their last call - to a car accident where a girl about Colleen's age was found dead at the scene - has left Tommy rattled and unable to respond. Needles suggests that he needs alcohol in his system, but Tommy's worried it could be something deeper, that he's just lost his ability to do the job, something that happens to firefighters every so often, including one guy from the house who went on to be a teacher. It's a great little scene, a scene that asks the question, "Who is Tommy if he can't fight fires, if he can't cheat death?" about as well as any scene the show has ever done.

It's also, again, about two seasons too late. The show has already flirted with so many elements of this scene that it has been robbed of its power. Tommy has wondered, several time before, who he is if he doesn't have his hardened heart or his callousness toward danger. He's had moments when he's questioned his calling before. And he's had moments where he isn't quite sure about plunging forward into the next challenge before. They haven't all been combined in quite this fashion before, but this scene would have so much power if the end game had come earlier. The moment still works, but there's a sense of what might have been hanging over it all the same. I'd argue that this is also true of, say, the scene where Tommy and the father talk about karma and what the priest believes (and, in some ways, I think Father Peter Gallagher is a bit of a too-good-to-be-true character for the show's universe, a character who was very obviously created by writers to provoke a certain response). And the final moments - of Tommy giving Colleen a baptism by alcohol - would feel more shocking and resonant if the show hadn't spent much of its last few seasons constantly trying to top itself.

I'm not trying to suggest that these moments don't work in isolation. What I'm trying to suggest is that I can be impressed by the show but disappointed by it at the same time. I love the episodes I'm watching now removed from everything else, but when I try to slot them in the grander fabric of the show, it feels as if the series is almost trying to say, "Just kidding!" about everything post-season two. You got a sense of this in the early days of season five as well, but at least there, the show did this by directly getting back to its roots, by having Tommy reconsider what happened on Sept. 11 and remember the trials of that day. Here, it feels as if Denis Leary and Peter Tolan have pulled an outline they had for the show's end out of a drawer, dusted it off and pressed forward with it, even though the series has progressed beyond that since.


This is a common complaint against American television. The argument that American TV inevitably grows rusty because shows don't come with pre-set endpoints that the creators can work toward isn't always true. But it often is, and shows like Rescue Me only bolster the idea that that argument is actually true. The problem with Rescue Me, I think, is that there wasn't much to the show beyond the central idea of a firefighter battling with his demons. There are only so many stories about fighting fires that a TV show can realistically do, and the series plowed through most of them in the space of a season or so. This meant that it turned toward being a character drama, which was the right move. But character dramas, absent some kind of grander theme or storyline, need to have room for the characters to grow. Because Rescue Me never worked as well when Tommy was healing, the show had to keep jerking the audience around and subjecting the character to more and more misery. What this means is that these final hours, which should be resonating with a sense of all of the pain the characters have gone through in the series, feel oddly perfunctory, like checking off boxes on a checklist. Rescue Me is a three-act series that ended up stuck in the end of its second act for three or four years.