Rescue Me Retrospective

My God, it’s been so long, I never dreamed you’d come back, but now here you are, and here I am.

Hearts and thoughts fade… away

Hearts and thoughts fade… away

-Pearl jam

In preparation for its final season, Rescue Me has been running a promo with this Pearl Jam song in the background as the camera pans around the firehouse and nondescript figures fade from the screen. The beauty of this promo is that it perfectly captures the excellence of the show as well as the maddening frustration of its loyal fans. With the season finale kicking off tonight at 10pm on FX (you’re welcome, FX), it seemed appropriate to take a look at the show.

The firsts years

One cannot underestimate the brilliance of the first and a half seasons of Rescue Me. Tommy Gavin and the rest of the Ladder 62 truck crew displayed all the best and worst of a “Boys Club” mentality: the endless gags and gags (all hilarious), the beautiful insensitivity (well respected), and the lack of of understanding or appreciation for the women in their lives (well done). This was male testosterone at its finest. The rest of the team featured The Womanizer (Franco), The Fat Guy (Lou), The Dumb Guy (Sean), The New Guy (Mike), and The Boss (Boss Reilly). Together, these six guys brought out the best parts of the male ego, while desperately trying to hide the brittle parts (often to spectacularly funny effect).

The standout moment from the early years is the scene where all the guys attend sensitivity training because a house firefighter filed a complaint against Lou (the overrated Diane Farr). The boys proceed to spout every imaginable racial and ethnic slur to the horror of the man in charge of training. (At one point, Franco complains that Puerto Ricans get only one ethnic slur: “Puerto Ricans, you fool us even when it comes to racism.”) The look on the sensitivity coach’s face is priceless. He can’t believe that just happened and neither can we. The show attacked our insecurities and sensibilities and made us laugh at them. It was a brilliant television.

The reduction

And then everything turned against us. Suddenly, and for seemingly no apparent reason, the show stopped being about the camaraderie of these 6 firefighters and turned into something much more depressing. I don’t mind a dark turn in a drama, but it got too much.

Consider the following storylines from seasons 2-5:

Tommy and his brother Johnny discover that they have a half-brother that their father had during his long affair outside of their marriage. The brothers try to determine if their priest brother is a pedophile.

Lou is conned out of his life savings by a prostitute named Candy.

Tommy’s son Connor is killed by a drunk driver. The drunk driver is later shot dead by Tommy’s Uncle Teddy.

Tommy’s ex-wife starts sleeping with his brother Johnny.

The widow of Tommy’s cousin (whom he sleeps with) begins drugging Tommy with a combination of drugs and Viagra.

Franco dates a rich older woman (played by Susan Sarandon) who ends up stealing his daughter, so he can’t do anything because he stole her from foster care.

Janet becomes pregnant. We are not sure if the father is Tommy or Johnny.

Johnny is shot dead.

Sheila accidentally burns down a house with her and Tommy inside after drugging Tommy again.

After being put to work at the desk due to declining health, Chief Reilly commits suicide.

Tommy gives Janet’s new baby to Sheila for an agreed sum of $850,000. Tommy does this because Janet is suffering from severe postpartum depression and Tommy believes that this is the best course of action.

Tommy’s father passes away while sitting next to his son at a baseball game.

Lou lets Candy move in with him after she reappears and apologizes to him.

Lou marries Candy, discovers that she will inherit a small fortune, finds out that her real name is Barbara and that she is wanted for fraud, wipes out their joint bank account, and calls the police.

Tommy’s family falls off the wagon and goes back to drinking.

Uncle Teddy’s wife, Elle, drives drunk and is killed in the resulting car accident.

Uncle Teddy blames Tommy for his wife’s death and shoots him twice in the shoulder to watch him bleed to death.

I didn’t invent any of those. The obvious question that anyone who hasn’t seen the show would ask is “Why would you keep watching it?” The answer is simple. The acting was superlative. Denis Leary really embodies Tommy Gavin. Granted, it’s probably not much from Denis Leary to Tommy Gavin, but he does it beautifully nonetheless. Steven Pasquale does such a great job playing Sean Garrity that if I ever meet him I’ll hope he’s just as goofy as Garrity. Lou has had some of the best one-liners in the entire show, and no one plays drunk like John Scurti. Daniel Sunjata has stood out as Franco. Plus, there have been some impressive guest spots from the likes of Maura Tierney, Sarandon, and Michael J. Fox (he won an Emmy for it), to name a few.

Despite the ridiculous plotlines, we kept coming back because of the rare moments of brilliance that still happened. In season 5, Tommy begins drinking in an empty bar owned by one of the firefighters and begins conversing with the ghosts of his cousin, father, and brother. At one point, Tommy has a really profound moment when he tells the ghost of his father, “You never told us what to do next.” Tommy points out that his father has taught him everything he knows about being a hero, but nothing about being a husband or a father. The moment is emotional, sad and fascinating at the same time. It makes me realize that being a husband and a father are the two most important responsibilities I have in this world. Very few shows touch our emotions like that. It remains my favorite dramatic scene in the entire series.

The interesting thing is that this scene has parallels with the entire series. It’s like Denis Leary and Peter Tolan created season 1 but nobody told them what to do next. The series got lost somewhere in the middle of the second season and never returned. The numbers show that viewers tend to agree:

Season 1- 2.7 million average

Season 2- 2.8 million average

Season 3 finale: 3.3 million (see what happens here)

Season 4 premiere: 2.8 million

Season 5 Average – 2.3 million

Season 6 premiere: 1.9 million

The series was continually losing steam, but something strange happened in season 6: the show began to bounce back. The threat to close the firehouse, plus the addition of Tommy’s nephew, shifted the show’s focus back to the firehouse and core group (with the additions of Black Sean and Chief Needles). Although the season finale garnered only 1.6 million viewers, there was a clear effort by the writers to introduce more humor into the proceedings. While the show didn’t reach the dizzying heights seen in seasons 1 and 2, the show produced solid efforts as a 35-year-old starting pitcher who’s still effective, but doesn’t have the good fastball of him. Many of the people I’ve spoken to about Rescue Me say they’re hopeful that the momentum built in Season 6 leads to a strong ending in Season 7. I hope they’re right.

The most frustrating part of Rescue Me is that it leaves me wondering what could have been. The show will most likely be fondly remembered for all the reasons already mentioned. With that being said, Rescue Me had a chance to be a Hall of Fame show. The show was regularly nominated for Emmy Awards and broke basic cable television ratings records. Along with The Shield, it put FX on the map as a venue for gritty, high-quality drama. Unfortunately for all of us, no one told them what to do next.

The TV Czar

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