I’ve been following Rescue Me over the past few years (catching up in my usual DVD-marathoning method), and I’m definitely a fan. But it tends to slip my mind when people ask for recommendations, and I’m not entirely sure why — part of me seems to want to keep it at an arm’s length. At its best, though, it’s a really gutsy, powerful TV show that’s wickedly funny and absolutely fearless. And it’s a real rarity in that it’s practically an auteur project — virtually all the episodes since the series began have been written by just three people (Denis Leary, Peter Tolan, and Evan Reilly), giving it a very consistent vision that’s never really faltered. But there are times Rescue Me goes overboard, its deliberately provocative subject matter hitting too squarely on the nose, its humor overreaching, its messages heavy-handed. The risks it takes often pay off brilliantly, to be sure, but occasionally the show falls on its face mishandling its own trangressiveness. This season follows the trend, with many great moments, but also some disappointing missteps.
For the uninitiated: Leary stars as reckless NYC fireman Tommy Gavin, who lost his cousin and countless friends during 9/11 and has been a wreck ever since. Tommy’s family is a mess — he’s separated from his selfish wife Janet (Andrea Roth), struggling to keep in touch with his rebellious daughters, and constantly dealing with the alcoholic shenanigans of his extended family. But Tommy’s real family is at work — the camaraderie and trust he shares with the guys on the job, goofing off at the firehouse or backing each other up during dangerous emergency calls. Tommy deals with his grief and frustration in a number of reckless ways — drinking like a fish, sleeping around, starting fights and taking unnecessary risks at work. Oh, and he also has a tendency to have drunken conversations with the dead people of his past, particularly his cousin Jimmy (James McCaffrey), whose death he feels responsible for — and whose widow Sheila (Callie Thorne) has come into his life in a mutually destructive, utterly unhealthy relationship.
Season five opens with a string of particularly great episodes, but tails off in its latter stages as it covers over-familiar ground. It begins with Tommy on the wagon, struggling to stay on the straight-and-narrow, but his fight is challenged when a French reporter (Karina Lombard) turns up at the firehouse to conduct interviews for her book about 9/11 — stirring up an emotional wasp’s nest. Frequently during this storyline, the season verges on “on-the-nose” territory politically, but the risk pays off with some fantastic moments as the characters wrestle with their emotional memories of that tragic event — a particular stand-out for me is an no-holds-barred argument between Tommy and his best friend Ken Shea (John Scurti), and a spectacular, episode-ending monologue from Sheila that, by rights, should have brought closure to her character arc. (If Callie Thorne weren’t such a talented comic actress, who they clearly want to keep around, it probably would have been.)
Strengthening this A-story are a number of effective subplots. Among them: the struggles of new station chief “Needles” Nelson (Adam Ferrara) to establish his authority over the crew; the relationship between “Black Shawn” (Larenz Tate) and Tommy’s daughter Colleen (Natalie Distler), and the comic repercussions that has at the firehouse; the disruptive influence of Janet’s new boyfriend Dwight (Michael J. Fox), a man so messed up he makes Tommy look normal; Tommy and Janet’s efforts to play nice for their younger daughter Katy (Olivia Crocicchia), which leads to a memorable scene in a bed-and-breakfast full of pretentious snobs at her boarding school; the integration of Sheila’s son Damien (Michael Zegen) into the crew as the new “probie;” and, my personal favorite, health issues for the brilliantly moronic Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) — aka “White Sean,” easily my favorite character on the show — a story arc way too good to spoil here.
As the season moves along, however, we return to over-familiar territory, and the season degrades. (It’s a twenty-two episode season — remember when that was the norm? Maybe it’s a good thing seasons are getting shorter.) Tommy’s battle with alcoholism continues, the destructive influence of his extended family reenters his life, the never-ending and not quite convincing sex triangle with Tommy, Sheila, and Janet goes another few rounds. The second half of the season is too much Tommy, not enough crew, and the subplots here are weaker: Ken rekindles his unlikely love affair with a prostitute that ripped him off; Franco (Daniel Sunjata), a shameless player the show seems to struggle to find material for, gets into boxing and falls for a tough chick at the gym everyone thinks is a lesbian; Silletti (Mike Lombardi) starts a band with Damien. None of these tracks really amount to much, as the show shifts its focus more squarely on Tommy and his relationships, ad nauseum. Throughout, it continues to take dramatic risks, staging lengthy, emotionally charged dialogues, but unfortunately fewer of them pay off.
It’s also impossible to discuss Rescue Me without talking about gender issues, which I’ve never been 100% comfortable with on this series. This is definitely a Guy Show, unapologetic about the macho-asshole behavior it’s depicting, and on one level it feels honest, at least — there are guys like this in the world, surely. And in its better moments, it undercuts its own sexism by using it to reflect badly on the obvious insecurities and stupidities of the men spouting it. (Maybe that’s why the less intelligent characters — Garrity and Silletti especially — come off so much more sympathetically than the smarter ones, like Tommy, Ken, and Franco). But there are other moments when the behavior is kind of endorsed, and I find myself wishing these characters would mature or evolve somehow. (They’ve tried it, but the guys always seem to revert.) Meanwhile, the female characters on the show — the ones that aren’t just on-hand to fall for Tommy’s bad boy charms, at least — have an unsettling tendency to be villainous forces in the lives of the show’s men. You could read it, of course, that the women are equally deplorable, equally selfish, equally messed up and crazy and self-destructive, because they are — and so, theoretically, equal. But at the end of the day, the show never quite comes down on their side. The men are usually defended, the women, well, not so much. This is particularly noticeable with Janet, a character who’s never been treated with much sympathy, and it’s particularly more problematic with Sheila — a unique, complicated character on the one hand, consistently well performed, but often relegated to conflict-generating, catalyst behavior, which feels unfair. There’s some hope that smart new character Kelly (Maura Tierney) might address this, and late developments finally take Tommy to task for his relentlessly destructive behavior, but the jury’s still out.
In the end, the season’s a pretty good example of the series — what it does well, and what it doesn’t. Ultimately I’d like to see the show focus more on the created family of the firehouse, the emotional issues of working a dangerous job, the near-flawless ensemble chemistry of its talented cast, and the compelling firefighting sequences, which are almost always a highlight. For all its weaknesses, it’s those strengths — well, and the fact that even at its worst, the show consistently raises issues and provokes thoughts; look how much I just freaking wrote about it! — that keep bringing me back for more.