A fireman's internal inferno

A crackling script and an ensemble cast makes this comedy-tinged dark drama work to perfection.

rescue me 88 (photo credit: )
rescue me 88
(photo credit: )
Darn those people at the FX network. Just when we had our lives sorted out, with both Nip/Tuck and The Shield - both FX network productions - on hiatus on local screens, along comes another gem, Rescue Me, to Xtra Hot on Sunday nights at 22:00, and it looks like we're hooked on yet another program from this stable of thoroughbreds. For while we weren't quite sure what to expect, despite the good buzz we heard about the series about post-9/11 trauma-torn New York City firemen, it's rare that we are so transfixed by a program for 50 minutes as we were Sunday night. Denis Leary, who started out in comedy and is Conan O'Brien's cousin, has created a masterpiece, with a crackling script and an ensemble cast that makes this comedy-tinged dark drama work to perfection. It's been three years since 9/11 - the series aired in 2004 - but the burden of lost colleagues, especially his cousin Jimmy, stills sits heavily upon fireman Tommy Gavin. While he juggles two other jobs besides his fireman stints, he struggles with a busted marriage, part of the emotional baggage he and his colleagues accumulate on the job every day. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show came when a department psychologist came to the firehouse to try to get the men to talk about their post-9/11 feelings and got the cold shoulder from all of them, except Jimmy. He explained in a long soliloquy that a fireman's emotional pain comes not only from isolated personal earthquakes like 9/11, but from the simple daily encounters with death and its victims. Recalling a little black boy he tried but failed to save, Tommy remembers how the boy's "skin comes off like wrapping paper on a Christmas present," or how he tried to save a little girl and her kitten one day, desperately rotating his own oxygen mask between himself, the girl and the cat. "Cat lived, she didn't," he explains, adding: "If there is a God, he's got a whole shitload of explainin' to do." These are men who dare not show much of their feelings, or they'll go mad. So Tommy and his mates carry them around with them, in his case, literally. For Tommy also sees dead people, mainly those he couldn't save, like his cousin, the black kid and the little girl with the cat who turn up in his most desperate moments. Like his colleagues, Tommy hides behind a wall of bravado, telling the guys who ask about his crumbling marriage that he's getting more sex than ever, when in reality he's paying off his kids to help him spy on his wife and her new boyfriend, or playing sick jokes like dropping a doll from the window of a burning building when everyone thought it was already clear. The rest of the crew are also emotionally bleeding. A veteran of the 9/11 carnage, super-macho Kenny "Lou" Shea secretly writes poetry about that horrible day, while the chief, Jerry Reilly (former real-life firefighter and outstanding character actor Jack McGhee) fights his demons by getting lost in a gambling addiction. The writing, mostly by Leary himself, who also co-produced and created the show, has plenty of his comedic touches. When Sean, the hunky but not too bright one, hears about how one of his colleague's, father died he vows to check out "ass cancer - you know, prostate." And when a crazy man leads to the crew being called to a building where he's been pouring urine down the stairs, Tommy urges his boys to get ready to "shoot the rapids." Our personal favorite, though, was catching the crew spending some relaxing moments watching TV in the firehouse - placing bets on whether the lion or the hyena would come out on top on a Nature Channel special. After all, says the chief, watching his money go down the drain on another lost wager, "I'm a New York City fireman - my whole life is a goddamn gamble." While perhaps a bit too macho, and sometimes a little bit stereotyped - practically every fireman is either Irish or Italian, with the exception of one Puerto Rican stud, and there's a tad too much locker room talk and horseplay - this series is top-drawer in every respect. Its mostly truthful tone likely stems from Leary's own firefighting tragedy: in December 1999, a warehouse fire in his native Worcester, Mass. killed six firemen, including Leary's cousin. He established the Leary Firefighters Foundation charity in response, adding another chapter after 9/11. It makes his accomplishment here even more remarkable. It's hard to say whether the scars of 9/11 will ever heal for New York's finest or the American people, but Rescue Me presents those scars with a mix of courage, humor, and dignity. For that, Leary & Co. deserve both our thanks and our weekly attention.