Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rescue Me: Flawed But Arresting

The following blog contains spoilers.

Is Rescue Me the best flawed show on television? I’d argue it is, but ever since its debut in the summer of 2004, the FX series (from the same cable network that brought you The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Damages) has divided audiences, who either like its incisive drama and outrageous humour or decry its juvenile tendencies and perpetually adolescent characters. Actually, they’re both right as this maddeningly uneven TV series can be as frustrating as it is engrossing.

Centering on the actions of the firefighters of Ladder Company 62 (aka 62 Truck), a Harlem-based firehouse, post 9/11, Rescue Me is an ambitious show that tries, and often succeeds, in capturing a specific moment in time: that of the slowly recovering shell-shocked New York City and the attendant worries, fears and attitudes held by those brave heroes who paid such a high price during the September 11 terrorist attacks. (An estimated and unprecedented 343 firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of the Twin Towers.) But this is no reverent show, extolling people only at their heroic best. The firemen, led by Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) are a profane, womanizing and, in the case of Gavin, an alcoholic lot, as apt to cheat on their partners as they are to risk their lives by running into a burning building.

Denis Leary and Crew
Created by actor/comedian Leary (The Ref, No Cure For Cancer), who has a hand in most of the show's scripts, and Peter Tolan, who also conceived the short lived, cynical ABC cop comedy The Job, Rescue Me was inspired by the loss of Leary’s firefighter cousin in a horrendous conflagration in Worcester, Massachusetts. But the show is about more than just the death of one specific firefighter; it has tackled a myriad number of subjects, from Gavin and several of his family members’ alcoholism, to the fractured relations between Tommy and his long-suffering wife, Janet (Andrea Roth). Other of the show’s themes have dealt with everything from conspiracy theories about 9 11, to those volunteers who may have gotten cancer when they helped clean up the site of the terror attacks. Gavin’s own religious issues and fears are also addressed in Rescue Me, usually in ‘conversations’ with the ghost of his dead cousin Jimmy Keefe (James G. McCaffrey) who died in 9/11, but still hangs around, haranguing Tommy over his real and imagined sins. (To its credit, the show never overplays its supernatural bent and has, in fact, scaled back its ghost motif in the last few seasons.) In fact, Rescue Me takes on too many ideas to deal with them all satisfactorily and displays a disconcerting ADD, bringing up and then dropping story lines after a few episodes never to return to them again.

Callie Thorne
This isn’t so much the attention-deficit disorder of a show like AMC's Mad Men, which simply hasn’t thought through its story arcs, but a function of Rescue Me’s admirable wish to cram in as much content and tackle as many concepts as it can possibly do over 13 or so episodes each season. Unfortunately that also means an unsatisfying dénouement to many provocative storylines, such as the abusive lesbian relationship entered into by Sheila (Callie Thorne), Tommy’s tempestuous off and on lover and Jimmy’s widow.

That startlingly honest and disturbing relationship (which ought to have been a subject of The L Word, if that show about lesbian life in California wasn’t so politically correct and pandering) was one of the dramatic high points of the last episode of season two. It also featured the tragic death of Tommy and Janet’s young son Connor, killed by a drunk driver when Tommy took his eyes off him for a few minutes. The montage of those two interlocked revelations – the show hadn’t actually shown the extent of Sheila’s abusive relationship until the finale – made for memorable, powerful television. However, while the reverberations of Connor’s death played out in the seasons to come, Sheila’s relationship was never mentioned or acknowledged again, a far-fetched omission considering that Tommy and Sheila were constantly fighting and slinging mud at each other, meaning Tommy wouldn't have hesitated to remind Sheila of this detour away from her otherwise heterosexual existence. (We don’t even know how she escaped her dire situation).

Andrea Roth & Denis Leary
Rescue Me is full of such inconsistencies and incomplete plotting – another was firefighter Franco Rivera’s objections to the official, non–conspiratorial version of why 9/11 happened in the first place (Daniel Sunjata, who plays Franco, is a real-life believer in 9/11 conspiracy theories.) It was brought up in season five, though Franco had never mentioned his beliefs before, and just as quickly dropped as if it never happened.

Where Rescue Me, succeeds best is in the unique nature of its protagonists, offering up well acted and ground-breaking depictions of certain types of individuals, who may appear on television from time to time, but are never prominent or likeable members of the cast. Rescue Me has the courage to showcase its characters as unthinkingly prejudiced and, in the personas of Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) and Mike Lombardi (Mike Silletti), stupid, besides. Of course, many people are actually like that, but on TV they’re almost always cast as villains or the butt of jokes. Even bigoted Archie Bunker, sympathetic as he often was on All in the Family, was usually outfoxed or mocked by the minorities he regularly assailed. In Rescue Me, the firemen regularly reveal and even revel in their prejudices towards gays and lesbians, women, blacks, Puerto Ricans and, especially Jews, a reaction heightened by the presence of Sidney Feinberg – referred to by one of his fellows as ‘Sid the Yid' – the house’s new Jewish chief. He's a Vietnam vet played by Jerry Adler, who essayed the similarly non–stereotypical corrupt former record executive Hesh on The Sopranos. (I even learnt a new anti–Semitic phrase from Rescue Me that I’d never heard before, which I won’t repeat here.)

Larenz Tate
It’s not the virulent racism held by Nazis and white supremacists, but the everyday racist assumptions often made about minorities, as in thinking all Jews are rich, something I’ve experienced by individuals who didn’t hate me or any Jews per se. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that Leary and Tolan are Irish and that most of the Truck 26 firefighters are Irish, too; Rescue Me is as much about fading Irish privilege and the dwindling influence that group holds in New York City’s multicultural power structure, as it is about anything else.) Rescue Me’s protagonists are full of such noxious views, frequently directed towards their own fellows, such as Franco, who is often ‘jokingly’ called a ‘spic’ by his fellows, and Black Shawn (Larenz Tate), Truck 62’s first and only black firefighter, a telling reality in a Harlem-based firehouse. (He's not called Black Shawn for racist reasons, though, but so as to distinguish him from the other Sean.) In one running joke, Tommy, regularly given parking tickets by a beat cop, tries to get out of the ticket by bonding with him as one Irishman to another, only to find out said cop is actually Jewish. As a provocative aside, the show makes clear that the city's cops, who lost 60 of their men during 9/11, loathe the firefighters, jealous that they have become the darlings of the populace and the recipients of numerous perks, such as the free drinks they get whenever they set foot in a New York City bar.

The portraits of Mike and Sean, too, broke new barriers. They really are thick, gullible, uninformed near rubes, and regularly reminded of that reality by the highly literate and sarcastic Lt. Kenny Shea (John Scurti), who rubs it in every chance he gets. Yet, they’re also good, well-meaning guys, something we’re not used to seeing on the tube, with the possible exception of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s bombastic anchorman, Ted Baxter. But that show ran almost forty year ago.

Fascinatingly enough, despite the firefighters’ sexism and misogyny (which the show often indulges in), and the fact that the show’s women are uniformly beautiful and sexy, Rescue Me’s females are also a strong no-nonsense lot who either don’t take crap from the(ir) men or eventually call them on their bullshit. They include Janet (who was actually raped by Tommy in one controversial episode, though she didn’t view it as such), Sheila, Laura (Diane Farr) – the female firefighter who had to cope with macho colleagues, and the other memorable women who have popped up on the show over the years, played by such forceful talents as Susan Sarandon, Gina Gershon, Maura Tierney and Marisa Tomei. They are among the best drawn and most-arresting characters, male or female, ever depicted on television.

Another appealing aspect of the show is its outrageousness, its fearlessness in setting up original and genuinely funny situational templates I’ve certainly never seen before, including, early in the series, Tommy’s encouraging the burgeoning lesbian relationship of his teenage daughter Colleen (Natalie Distler) so she won’t get in trouble with boys, or his punching out his cousin Mickey (Robert John Burke), a priest, in the confessional, no less. Later on, he actually convinces his alcoholic relations, including Mickey and his Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) to fall, on mass, off the wagon by demonstrating that drinking is more fun than being sober. Lest you find that offensive, Rescue Me actually excels in its acute portrait of alcoholism, which may be the most realistic way it’s ever been dealt with on television. In the show’s latest (sixth) season, which recently ended, Tommy’s drinking problem was extended to his daughter Colleen, a suggestion that this pernicious disease, as Janet observes, can be genetic in nature.

Denis Leary & Maura Tierney
The show’s many virtues aside, Rescue Me is also highly problematic, especially in its conflicted and contradictory reactions to and depiction of the self-centered, narcissistic behaviour of Tommy et al. The show alternately condemns and extols the guys’ sexist, boorish antics, who have learnt little from their past mistakes. For a show with such great characters, Rescue Me, over its six years, has displayed remarkably little character development, particularly if compared such HBO series as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Its creators don’t seem to want to actually confront Tommy and his pals to the degree that they’ll actually grow up and change. (Season Six did take tentative steps towards forcing Tommy to come to terms with his myopia and selfishness but, based on its erratic track record, I can’t say if that momentum will carry through to the series forthcoming seventh – and final – season.) Of course, that may also be the point of Rescue Me; they likely can’t evolve into complex, generous human beings. But dramatically that makes the show more than a little repetitive, especially as regards Tommy Gavin. He’s gone on and off the wagon, pissed off and reconciled with both Janet and Sheila, regularly failed as a father, though constantly promising to do better and fallen in and out of favour with his workmates. Over its eighty plus episodes, that back and forth dynamic can and has become tiresome, as has the series’ penchant for dramatic, tragic season finales. Contriving to have Sheila’s son Damian (Michael Zenger), Tommy’s godson, seriously injured during a call was both telegraphed – I thought he’d actually be killed but knew something bad would happen to him – and one tragedy too many for the beleaguered Tommy, who has lost his father and a brother during the course of the series, too.

Likely, the show has run its creative course, which makes the decision to wrap it up next year, in time for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the right one. Whether Rescue Me will go out with an indelible bang – a la Six Feet Under – or dribble off with a ho-hum, flat finale, as The Sopranos did, I can’t say. The way the show has, uniquely, scaled the heights of great TV, but also scraped the lows of unimaginative television fare, means either conclusion is possible.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. 

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