By Todd VanDerWerff
Rescue Me, which ended its third season last night, is a series at war with its own worst impulses. In every episode—indeed, in every scene—the audience holds its breath, waiting to see if the writers will find a note of grace or banality.
Even the finale, a mostly quiet and occasionally meditative hour about the sacrifices the men of the firehouse have made, was marred by a ludicrous cliffhanger in which Sheila (Callie Thorne, doing strong work in an underwritten role), in a fit of rage prompted by the admission of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary, stunning even in the show's weaker episodes) that he's not going to retire and move with her to the beach, drugged Tommy, then accidentally started a fire, which she somehow couldn't put out (and she's supposed to be a fireman's widow?) and collapsed beside him as the flames roared around them. Sheila, a once interesting character, had sunk to the level of a crazy shrew—an unfortunately common outcome for the show's female characters.
The cliffhanger was already objectionable for its lack of real suspense (does anyone really think Tommy won't get out alive?). But it was doubly unfortunate that it came at the end of a short arc (mostly dealing with the death of Tommy's brother Johnny, played by Dean Winters) that eschewed the show's usual on-the-nose approach to plot twists for something subtler. In large part, the season's last three installments had blended humor and pathos in a way that only Rescue Me can manage. It seemed possible that the show third year would end a high note—a major victory, considering that this season was problematic even at its best. Co-created and overseen by Leary and coproducer Peter Tolan, Rescue Me tends to mistake collections of bad events for high drama, it has trouble drawing believable female characters, and it often doesn't trust itself to go for an understated moment when an over-the-top moment is readily available.
So what makes Rescue Me worth watching at all? For one thing, it's a show with a singular voice. Both its best and worst inclinations stem naturally from Leary and Tolan's view of the world as a bleak place where only a mordant sense of humor will get you through the day. A lot of dramatic TV either sands off its rough edges or sharpens them to a fine point in order to compensate for a weak product (Rescue Me's FX stablemate Nip/Tuck is guilty of the latter). Whatever other complaints one can muster, it's hard to say that Rescue Me doesn't come from a genuinely artistic place. What Rescue Me offers, what keeps its fans coming back week after week are smaller moments that counteract the dramatic bombast. Susan Sarandon, for example, was mostly wasted in a guest arc early in season three, but she had a lovely monologue where she justified the kidnapping of Franco's (Daniel Sunjata) daughter, Keela (who, legally, wasn't Franco's to begin with), by pointing out to Tommy that his male chauvinist boys' club would destroy the spirit and ambition of an obviously bright girl like Keela. For a show with as many poorly developed female characters as this one, the monologue seemed to endorse the theory of many viewers that the women of Rescue Me do have interesting lives, even if we rarely get to see them. (Of course, this idea was never developed beyond that one monologue, but it stood out in a series of episodes that seemed unusually female unfriendly; more on this in a minute.)
Throughout the season, Rescue Me played to its greatest strength, comedy. Even an underwhelming episode might boast an extended, massively entertaining bit like fireman Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) sleepwalking with dried chip dip on his face, destroying a supermarket and somehow winning his girlfriend's love in the process. Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan (who directs and co-writes many of the episodes with Leary) have an ear for the way guys talk when they're not around women, and the firehouse scenes routinely rank among TV's best. It's worth watching Rescue Me week to week just to see what these crude men will say and do—and the actors are up to the challenge. But the sense of male camaraderie transcends ball-busting. Leary and Tolan understand that men can be reserved emotionally (a stereotypical portrayal) but will open themselves up in small groups. In every episode, there's a scene where handful of firemen discuss their lives with each other; these scenes rarely hit false notes. Often, the exchanges are prompted by Tommy, who's more gregarious than the others; when he talks with, say, Franco about his missing daughter, or defends the Probie (Mike Lombardi) when his colleagues express revulsion at his homosexual relationship with his roommate, it feels real. Occasionally, the show will string enough of these emotionally real moments together and sidestep enough of its unfortunate tendencies to nail down a wonderful scene or episode. Think of the third season scene where Tommy used a visit to his eldest daughter's school counselor to learn about his own emotional damage, or the scene where he visited a bar and held forth on the FDNY's September 11 losses, reminding the viewer of how many times he's used 9/11 trauma to excuse inexcusable behavior. Special mention should also be made of the fire scenes themselves, which are always expertly choreographed and shot—Dante's Inferno by way of an especially bleak stand-up routine.
In particular, the season's penultimate episode, which centered on Johnny's death, felt like one of the series' finest hours yet. For a show that's largely dialogue-driven, significant portions of the story were told visually. From Tommy's dad (the wonderful and under-used Charles Durning) struggling with a doorknob after learning the news to the ghosts of Tommy's lost friends and relatives standing vigil at Johnny's funeral, the episode was quietly powerful, marred only by cutaways to storylines that felt unnecessary, like Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) in jail, a subplot played for increasingly rare laughs.
Many of the show's fans are critical of this episode for segueing (a bit awkwardly) into a wedding celebration for Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale), who is marrying Tommy's sister. But that's the essential Rescue Me spirit: there are good and bad things in life, and your crutches (alcohol, sex) get you through. The most important of these is family; the wedding and the after-party (featuring the whole, sprawling Gavin clan—good luck keeping track of them without a flowchart) espoused this idea more strongly than any in the show's history. Rescue Me sincerely believes that sorrow can become joy in a matter of moments if you're surrounded by the right people.
But Rescue Me's faults are too serious to deserve a pass. All too often, when given the choice between doing something realistic and insightful and doing something cheaply melodramatic, the show opts for the latter. The sense of cheap melodrama can be felt most keenly in its account of its hero's life. Tommy lost a beloved cousin (and fellow fireman) on Sept. 11, then sank into depression and the bottle, losing his wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), then taking up with his cousin's widow, Sheila. Since then, Tommy has lost a son, Connor, and a brother, split from his wife and various girlfriends, dealt with survivor's guilt and tried to conquer his alcoholism. He's had to put up with a cantankerous father and watched his uncle go to jail for killing the man who killed Tommy's son.
Gavin's run of bad luck is equalled by few TV characters; one of them is NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who lost partners, children and lovers, enduring so much heartbreak that his level of misfortune grew to seem ridiculous. But it's worth remembering that Sipowicz endured these tragedies over 12 seasons, each one consisting of 22 episodes apieces. Tommy's tragedies were packed into three 13-episode seasons, and his friends in the firehouse have suffered on a similarly grand scale. The Chief (Jack McGee) has lost his wife to Alzheimer's and suffered a heart attack. Lou (John Scurti) saw his money swindled by a call girl and contemplated suicide. The Probie has had to deal with a sexual fetish (for overweight women), his desire to stalk his ex with a gun (one of the series' worst subplots) and his sexual orientation (he had an affair with his male roommate). The series rose to new levels of excess near the end of Season Two, when bad things happened to every character in the last five episodes, cresting in a finale which took place immediately after the death of Tommy's son.
On an unabashed soap opera like All My Children or Dallas, the audience expects the characters to suffer during every waking moment. Melodrama works in a self-contained feature film because, like a soap opera, the audience accepts the genre as a heightened interpretation of reality. The narrative represents a greatly compressed series of events; one quick cut and you're on to the next thing. The ostensibly realistic TV drama doesn't do melodrama well, because it doesn't have such luxuries. The story is spread over many years, and between episodes (or seasons), the viewer has time to think about what happened and poke holes in the show's credibility. On a soap, this is all right; contrivance is part of the fun. But a show like Rescue Me can't afford to seem contrived; it's already leaning too much on broadly theatrical devices (like Tommy's ghosts). If too many characters endure too many tragedies in too short a timespan, the bubble of realism pops. Rescue Me pops its own bubble routinely. Whenever it wants to shake up the characters' status quo, it reaches for misery (like the death of Tommy's son) and threatens to become a soap opera for macho guys.
In Season Three, Rescue Me seemed to balance its lighter, better elements and its melodrama. Deeply serious subplots (like Lou contemplating suicide) were balanced with light-hearted ones. Even in the season's tragic final episodes, the writers retained celebratory elements (Garrity's long-awaited wedding; the scene where Lou was revealed to be dating a soon-to-be ex-nun). This season also indicated that the show's creators were capable of restraint. Where Tommy's son's death was conveyed in an over-the-top music video where Tommy rushed his boy to the hospital, the death of Tommy's brother was cause for a mostly understated montage that showed people descending into grief as a less-oppressive song played on the soundtrack. The first incident tried to ratchet up already-plentiful emotion. The second allowed us to fill in the blanks and see the emotional aftershocks for ourselves—we already knew from the "previously on" that Johnny Gavin was dead; now, we got to see those who loved him react. (This is not to say that the series completely abandoned bombast. In the same episode as this montage, Tommy received an answering machine message from his brother forgiving him, letting him off the hook for a season-long fight over Tommy's ex-wife. While this ties into the the show's theme of family overcoming all obstacles, it felt cheap and dramatically convenient.)
But in season three, the show's other worst impulse came to the fore. The women of Rescue Me tend to be emasculating harpies whenever they're not lusting after one of the firefighters (usually Tommy, though Franco is a target as well). In the first two seasons, this flaw was easier to overlook. The show is told from the point-of-view of the guys. We saw so little of the women that we could presume their lives were more complex than the men knew.
Then, in season three, Tommy raped his ex-wife, and the show seemed to approve of it. The scene began with Tommy and Janet discussing how to split up their affairs. He grew angry with her, then slapped her around, forcing her onto the couch and holding her down. Then he removed her clothes and his pants and pushed himself inside of her (all of this conveyed through sound effects). Her rage gave way to something approaching pleasure; the job done, Tommy pulled out. The whole encounter was filmed from a low angle that made Tommy look like a monstrous aggressor.
True, the scene had its ambiguities: Janet never said "No" or cried out, and eventually she seemed to enjoy it. In addition, their relationship was always volatile; it wasn't inconceivable that we were watching hate sex. Even if it was rape, the show would have been on dramatically solid ground if the scene had ended there. But it didn't. After the encounter, Tommy exchanged pleasantries with Janet, who got dressed again. Then he left the apartment as indie rock rose on the soundtrack and a charismatic smile crossed his face in tight closeup. Pulling on his sunglasses, he got in his truck and pulled away from Janet's building. Moments later, Johnny went to the same building to visit Janet (his lover at the time) and found her sitting on the couch, flipping through a magazine, acting as though what just happened was the most normal thing in the world. Indie rock played triumphantly throughout.
The scene's defenders would have viewers believe that the soundtrack reflected Tommy's mental state, and the unstable attraction that still existed between him and Janet. But the images told another story. Because Leary is so charismatic, because the whole thing was presented with such a joyous juxtaposition, the show, intentionally or not, sided with Tommy. There's no way to watch that scene and say that Rescue Me thought its hero's actions weren't justified. The overwhelming sense is that Tommy put that bitch in her place.
Rescue Me certainly doesn't have a moral imperative to sit down with the viewers and explain that rape, even between lovers, is a crime. But it does have the imperative to view acts like this through a lens of neutrality. When a Sopranos gangster cuts down a gangland foe, even if the killer takes pleasure in the moment, the series rarely does. Violence is shown from an emotional or physical distance—with a sense of detachment, even coldness (think, for example, of Tony's fight with Ralphie in Season Four—shot clinically, to convey the weight of the violence). Rescue Me undercut itself by making what the writers claim wasn't a rape seem like one, then appearing to side with the rapist. (This was par for the course. Rescue Me has almost never sided against Tommy; while he may be a jerk, we're always reminded that he's a a cool guy and a good friend.)
If the event wasn't indicative of a larger trend, it could be viewed with some impunity. But the season also saw Tommy take a co-ed home and duct tape her mouth shut when she wouldn't stop talking, Susan Sarandon kidnap Franco's daughter, Janet come to have an affair with Tommy post-encounter, Sheila drug Tommy (twice) and rape him (once) and numerous women lust after Tommy and call him repeatedly (at one point causing him to proclaim a day "crazy chick calling day"). And that's not even touching on the finale, where Sheila put Tommy in mortal danger. None of the women of Rescue Me did anything redeemable in Season Three, and the producers' promises that Tommy would feel the repercussions of his actions in Season Four smacked of backpedaling, as if Leary and Tolan were responding to a critical outcry they didn't see coming. (And let's remember that Season Four is a year away; some viewers may feel they need to see the repercussions now.)
All of this may make Rescue Me sound like an abominable show that's not worth watching. But it is worth watching; it has moments of truth and insight, humor and affection. Its missteps are so maddening because it is so often very good, making its flaws all the more readily apparent. Perhaps Leary and Tolan can fight their way past their worst tendencies, and find the great show that lurks inside of their very good but very frustrating one.
Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.