Unlike most male-dominated shows of its stripe, FX’s New York firefighter drama Rescue Me doesn’t have a virgin/whore complex when it comes to its women, it has a bitch/whore complex—something that detracts (occasionally quite substantially) from what is otherwise a better-than-average show. When the firefighters aren’t engaging in wish-fulfillment porn fantasies with an endless bevy of trollops (easily pleased, dirty-minded, and multi-orgasmic), they’re battling with their horrid wives and ex-wives (and never a more money-grubbing batch of shrews has been seen on the small screen). Oh, and sometimes they fight fires.
Rescue Me lives in the shadow of the first TV show that Denis Leary and Peter Tolan created, The Job, which had a shooting-star-short run on ABC. On that one, Leary and Tolan upended the NYPD Blue template of “gritty” New York cop shows by focusing not on law-and-order but on the ways in which its less-than-stellar officers wasted their days. It was a rare moment when they actually caught a criminal, more often through luck than anything else. The show’s sly satire never quite caught on, though, and so when Leary and Tolan built their next idea around that other employment pillar of the Irish-American community, the fire department, they went in guns blazing, machismo fully loaded.
The show starts out on the East River, with firefighter veteran Tommy Gavin (Leary) lecturing a squad of new recruits about how big his balls are (“Bigger than two of your heads duct-taped together”) and talking about how there’s no room for pussies in the FDNY. From there on, it’s a steady diet of death-defying fires, marital discontent, raucous locker-room humor, and sexual escapades straight from Penthouse Forum. Though it’s hardly can’t-miss television, there’s plenty to recommend, not least of which is Leary, whose bitter humor—steeped in decades of whiskeyed-up Irish dysfunction—forms the dark heart of each episode. Like The Job, Leary and Tolan assembled a fine batch of actors to take Leary’s barbs and hurl them back, most especially Daniel Sunjata, investing his somewhat stock über-macho Puerto Rican character with more wicked humor and dignity than the writing deserves. And the less said about the pill-popping Lenny Clarke and his midget bookie buddy, the better.
Although generally a fairly traditional show, Rescue Me does take some risks, most especially in the way it handles loss. The shadow of 9/11 and the 343 firefighters who lost their lives in the Twin Towers hangs darkly over every episode here. Gavin’s soon-to-be-ex-wife is planning to leave the old neighborhood (with their three kids) because she can’t handle the sadness that looms over it—all the kids without fathers, mothers without husbands, and the survivors walking around, dead inside but acting like everything is just fine. So, the firefighters compensate with drinking, fighting, risky behavior. In the show’s riskiest move, Gavin is literally haunted—his cousin (a firefighter who died on 9/11) shows up for a beer and some friendly bullshitting, sometimes with the victims Gavin couldn’t save, while his co-workers ask him whom he’s talking to. It’s an interesting device and carried out with a welcome minimum of hocus pocus, though occasionally it does smack of writers’ desperation: how else to get a glimpse at the inner workings of a bottled-up inveterate liar like Gavin? Apparently it’s easier to open up to ghosts.
Given the layers of heroism that were draped across the FDNY after 9/11, it probably took someone as close to the community as Leary—who counts many firefighters among his family and friends, not to mention running the Leary Firefighters Fund—to treat them like mortal beings without being excoriated. The result doesn’t always make for smart television, but it’s bracing stuff nonetheless, and worthy of a couple more seasons at least.
Sound levels are all over the map, with some dialogue almost muted and then the occasional musical interludes (not to mention the Von Bondies song that plays over the credits) that come roaring out of the speakers. The picture transfer is passable, though the colors are oddly drab, and not always intentionally so, as in the firehouse scenes, shot with a more desaturated look.
A quick-and-dirty package that will leave the average viewer plenty happy and the serious fan (of whom there are plenty, at least in the five boroughs) less than satisfied. Show creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan provide audio commentary on a couple episodes, there's a decently entertaining blooper reel, a second season preview, and some deleted scenes that show quickly why they had been deleted.
More raucous character study than Backdraft-style heroics; good but not quite great examples of either.