Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, but in the case of Rescue Me‘s final season, there isn’t even smoke. In 2004, Denis Leary and Peter Tolan’s seriocomic paean to the fallen firefighters of 9/11 was ablaze with purpose, bracingly cutting through the heroism blindly bestowed on the uniform to deal with the flawed humans who wore them. In increasingly unsubtle seasons, the show wrung drama after drama from alcoholic, ghost-seeing, adrenaline-junkie Tommy Gavin (Leary) in an effort to show that even “heroes” need rescuing. The fatal flaw lies in the fact that Rescue Me would end if Tommy ever redeemed himself, and after jumping through a series of ever more implausible hoops, the show still seems unable to live up to its premise. For the last several seasons, Rescue Me has succeeded more as a fraternal sitcom than a drama, and seems intent to go out with a fizzle, not a bang.
The first of the final nine episodes, “Mutha,” opens a few months before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and illustrates the show’s fatigue: There hasn’t been a fire in 13 days, and the firehouse crew is listless. What good is a firefighter, asks the show, if there are no fires? And so it is that Tommy goes in search of a purpose, visiting the footprint of the Twin Towers along with his co-workers: best friend Lou (John Scurti), Chief “Needles” (Adam Ferrara), and Deputy Chief Feinberg (Jerry Adler), who takes the opportunity to sound off on the importance of legacies.
Unfortunately, Rescue Me soon realizes that it has no legacy to fall back on, for while the season opens with the crew attempting to honor Tommy’s fallen cousin, Jimmy (James McCaffery), it ends up (once again) focusing on the fact that Tommy’s been sleeping with Jimmy’s widow, the ball-busting Sheila (Callie Thorne), who has now befriended Tommy’s pregnant wife, the equally fierce Janet (Andrea Roth). This is old hat for Rescue Me, as are Tommy’s egocentric clashes with his self-destructive daughter, Colleen (Natalie Distler), who’s intent on marrying Tommy’s co-worker, “Black” Shawn (Larenz Tate). The plotting is so shrill, so repetitious, so interchangeable, that the only real difference between Cousin Mickey (Robert John Burke) and Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) is that one of the two men shot Tommy at the end of season five, a fact that is heartily ignored, mainly because the writers have no idea how to handle it.
In truth, Rescue Me has spent so much time ignoring the overall plot and the arc of the characters so far that it’s now incapable of moving forward. This season, the team seems caught off guard by Lou’s unhealthy diet and subsequent inability to pass a physical; how quickly they’ve forgotten his heart attack from last season. When Tommy reunites with an old flame, Kelly (Maura Tierney), he sees her cancer as an opportunity to do the right thing and help her fight; it’s as if he’s forgotten all the work he did for crewmate Sean (Steven Pasquale), who also fended off cancer a few seasons back. Tommy berates Lou for eating red velvet cupcakes in one scene, but ignores all the food he’s eating at a wedding reception later in the episode. As for Kelly, who only appears in three episodes, the moment she’s gone, Tommy seems to have forgotten she even existed: Lesson not learned.
Unable to look forward or back (in a season about “legacies” that should ostensibly be dedicated to doing both), Rescue Me instead does what it always does, which is pile on plots like kindling, hoping for a spark. Instead, it makes the season look both lost and rushed. Former probationary officer Mike (Michael Lombardi) hardly ever appears now: He’s roped into planning Colleen’s wedding almost as an afterthought. Franco (Daniel Sunjata), the uncontrollable lothario who thinks 9/11 was a conspiracy, suddenly wants to be a lieutenant, a subplot that’s quickly abandoned. Feinburg’s big moment is even shorter: In one scene, he has a senior moment, but remains utterly lucid everywhere else.
The blame for Rescue Me‘s decline can be laid squarely at Leary’s feet: He’s the star, writer, and producer, after all. And given the way his stand-in, Tommy, is criticized, it seems as if he’s well aware of his weaknesses: “The sex you don’t remember, the see-through shirt, the moonlight…but somewhere in that dark, dense tangled mangle of a shitstorm you call a brain, you remember [a love letter]. Because it pertains to you and what you need right now.” This perfectly sums up Rescue Me, which isn’t an addictive show so much as it is a show that’s addicted to itself, doing whatever it takes, at whatever cost to the rising action or the growing characters, to make a shortsighted or proselytized point. We can accept a sitcom’s lack of growth (though the best ones—like Parks and Recreation and Community—change), but not the stasis of a drama. Apart from a few dry, ashy chuckles conjured up by memories of what Rescue Me once was, this final season is about as useful as a lighter in a vacuum: Forget fresh air, there’s no air left on which to cast a spark.