Rescue Me

Just for your information, ultra is like way bigger than mega.
— Tommy (Denis Leary), “Voicemail”

Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) wants to clean up his act. He really does. Most of the time. Looking at the mess he’s made of things, what wit the drunkenness and the wife who’s left him and the kids he misses and the job he’s given up — well, it all looks pretty grim. Still, none of it is so grim as when he wakes one blurry morning to find Jesus H. Christ Himself in his bedroom, pulling nails out of his feet.

Season Two of Rescue Me, co-created by Leary, doesn’t look to be any easier on Tommy than the first. A wry mix of comedy and calamity, Leary’s homage to courageous, righteous, and despondent firemen remains surprising, if for no other reason than its abuse and harsh critique of Leary’s protagonist. While gnarly cops and shady lawyers have long since become popular tv protagonists, a self-destructive fireman has got be a harder sell, not least because, as Tommy asserts in the new season premiere, “Voicemail,” firemen are famously and inarguably “brave men.” True, his point is somewhat undercut by the fact that he makes it during an assault on a 9/11 cookie vendor; in yet another alcohol-fueled haze, he pees on the guy’s table and finds himself arrested by a couple of NYC uniforms, even as he insists that he’s only exercising his “freedom of speech.” Yeah, yeah, nod the cops, another “fireman making a fool of himself.” And okay, Tommy can’t keep from another lurch into the very sort of pissing contest that keeps him (barely) standing: “You know they have no cop cookies, right?”

Cut to Tommy exiting the station, rescued one more time by his lawyer brother Johnny (Dean Winters), at this point just about out of patience. Now that he owes the sergeant a couple of Lion King tickets on top of everything else, Johnny explodes, slamming Tommy up against a police van in the parking lot. The camera careens, the brothers gasp and fall, a couple of passers by try to break them up, a move that only unites them against the world one more time. You don’t mess with the Gavins, man.

Rescue Me is like this: its rhythms are uneven, its tone sometimes spastic, its humor bleak, and its insights into masculine melodramatic pain as acute as any show on tv. No matter how bad Tommy feels for and about himself, however, he’s still the guy with the “most guts,” the guy his fellow firefighters want with them when they launch themselves headlong into a burning building. That means Tommy’s earned some slack, even if last season he did break the ultimate code by sleeping with Sheila (Callie Thorne), his best friend/cousin’s widow (a best friend who died on 9/11). Not only is she pregnant and hormonal now, but she’s also a bit of a tedious handful, arriving at his apartment laden with baby stuff and complaining about her cabbie: “He’s got terrorist written all over him and he stinks like camel shit and he’s got a turban and this long beard and like this smocky thing instead of a shirt.”

Usually at least a little sensitive to racism on the job, Tommy here doesn’t even notice her diatribe, except that it means he’s got to calm her down with some of his good-man loving. But he’s so mad he can’t manage the generous step. She can’t drink, because of the baby and all, and though he keeps promising to dry out, vodka seems the best answer to this impossible situation: “You are so annoying,” Sheila snaps, “You’re a Neanderthal.” Glug. She’s only the beginning. In addition to a couple of other appearances by the Savior (primarily in the form of blood dripping from the crucifix in Sheila’s kitchen), Tommy suffers nightmares, yearns for his ex, Janet (Andrea Roth), and hasn’t made up with self-loving womanizer Franco (Daniel Sunjata), who blames Tommy for injuries suffered in a fire last year (the effects of which are becoming complicated, as he’s hooked on the Vicodin he’s taking for pain).

Having requested a transfer last year, Tommy’s now working in Staten Island, which means a two hour drive to work and unbearably dullsville days on the job (he walks in on the probie wiping down the dining table, because, the kid says, “Somebody left a couple of smudges”). He spends his off hours smashing his fists into a makeshift punching surface (his dingy floor rug duct-taped to the wall) and slamming back whole bottles of vodka.

Tommy starts pressing for a return to the old firehouse, 62 Truck, though Franco resists, as does the chief), and solicits help from his old buddy Kenny (John Scurti). It so happens that Kenny distrusts Tommy’s “goddamn great” replacement, Sully (Lee Tergeson). Though he’s something of a chef (he makes haricot verte) and “terrific” on the shift, there’s something about Sully that bothers Kenny. It might be that he’s a great masseuse, or maybe it’s that “he’s like a chick, he can talk to anybody about anything.” Insert a shot of Sully reassuring firefighter Laura (Diane Farr) that a new haircut with bangs won’t be too much of a “Dorothy Hamill thing.” Chief (Jack McGee) likes him, Sean (Steven Pasquale) digs the massages (“I feel like one of those deer in the meadow with the flowers and the birds and shit”). Tommy’s looking awfully stuck.

But he’s nothing if not a hardcore manipulator. And so Tommy spends the new season’s early episodes seeking ways to control and finagle: he’s got Johnny looking for Janet (who’s moved out of town with the children, without leaving an address, a situation that has Tommy thinking suicidal) and is even trying to stop drinking with the help of his sponsor, brother, and priest, Mick (Robert John Burke). Though Tommy’s prone to setbacks when it comes to morality, loyalty, and generosity, he’s also smart enough to see what he’s doing, maybe a beat or two after he’s done it.

And this is what makes Rescue Me resonate. For all its smart-ass (and smart) observations about the difficulties of living up to expectations, or, post-9/11, performing like heroes, the series is most interested in how the firefighters survive the mundane details of their lives. How do they get up in the morning? How do they go to sleep at night? How do they support one another, in the face of prejudice, tradition, fear, and macho posturing? While the situations can get soapy, by way of flirtations and disappointments, hopes and treacheries, the series reshapes the form to suit its subjects. Tommy’s not larger than life. He’s just dealing with it.

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