As usual, I’m considerably behind the rest of the world in seeing off a long-running series’ final episodes: in this case, Rescue Me, the powerful Denis Leary comedy-drama that ran for seven seasons on FX. The final two seasons were bundled together for the DVD release, sending off a uniquely compelling fusion of ensemble comedy and post-9/11 emotional catharsis.
Season six begins with firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary) recovering from the serious injuries he incurred at the end of season five (reviewed extensively here). As usual, his personal life is a shambles. The rivalry between his wife Janet (Andrea Roth) and ex-mistress Sheila (Callie Thorne) takes a clever turn. Tommy also has to deal with the emerging alcoholism of his daughter Colleen (Natalie Distler),whose relationship with his squad mate Shawn (Larenz Tate) is now awkwardly out in the open. And of course, he continues to manage argumentative relationships with the rest of his extended, dysfunctional family, wrestles with his drinking problem, and remains haunted by friends and family lost over the years. Meanwhile, there are plenty of antics and issues confronting the squad of 62 Truck, including health issues for Lt. Ken “Lieu” Shea (John Scurti), career ambition for Franco (Daniel Sunjata), and a waffling commitment to firefighting from Tommy’s nephew Damian (Michael Zegen). Collectively, the crew battles the forces of bureaucracy when budget cuts threaten to shut down the firehouse. These conflicts and problems bring the series to a well planned and satisfying close.
Rescue Me always had a terrific cast, and the ensemble chemistry is consistently on display in these final episodes. Writers Leary, Peter Tolan, and Evan Reilly rely increasingly on long, extended scenes of dialogue, making the show occasionally feel like a stage play. Virtually every character gets a memorable monologue. Highlights of this closing set are a storyline involving Garrity (Steven Pasquale) and Mike (Michael Lombardi) taking an interest in a comrade stricken by an illness caused at Ground Zero, and a welcome return of Tommy’s old flame Kelly (Maura Tierney), who gets a particularly moving storyline. Leary, Thorne, and Pasquale are always the standout performers, in my book, but ultimately it’s a remarkable team effort from the entire cast. The second-to-last episode features one of the best firefighting sequences in the show’s run, and the finale sums up the experience of the show brilliantly, featuring several excellent scenes and one really outstanding one.
I’ll definitely miss Rescue Me, a show that maintained a consistent vision, took lots of risks, and did its own thing — much like the self-centered, reckless character at its heart. Sometimes the risks don’t pay off: its envelope-pushing content feels too calculated at times, it revels too gleefully in its political incorrectness, and its gritty realism grinds awkwardly against its heightened-reality silliness occasionally. But just as often, the risk-taking pays off brilliantly, and no other show quite hits this one’s unique mix of elements. More than just a raunchy comedy with serious undercurrents, Rescue Me feels like a protracted emotional wrestling match with the tragic, chaotic mess of post-9/11, 21st century American life. If its politics are occasionally in-your-face and obvious, they’re also heartfelt and raw. As time goes by, I think Rescue Me will hold up as a interesting window onto its era.