Image B Sound B- Extras B
"Guts," "Gay," "Kansas," "DNA," "Orphans," "Revenge," "Butterfly," "Inches," "Alarm," "Immortal," "Mom," "Leaving," "Sanctuary"
by Walter Chaw I liked Denis Leary and Peter Tolan's FX network TV series "Rescue Me" unconditionally once I'd seen the first three episodes, the last of which includes a scene of a father and son communicating in a coded language that left me vulnerable in a way I find extraordinarily uncomfortable. But if the show worked for me, after giving some thought as to the whys and wherefores, I like it with a few grave reservations about the types of things that I like and, more relevantly, about the kinds of programs that have found a voice right there along the edge of the mainstream over the past couple of years. I say this having never watched an episode of "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives", but the best new television ("Deadwood", in particular, is without hyperbole like bearing witness to Shakespeare) seems involved in razing civilization in the wake of 9/11 and redefining it in terms of the basest kind of animal logic. "Post-apocalyptic" is one description--science-fiction where men and the politics of living need to reorganize along stringent biological lines. (I'm thinking that "Lost" probably applies.) A scene in the seventh episode of "Rescue Me" ("Butterfly") where firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary) goes to a union doc and gets three prescriptions--for insomnia, depression, and impotence--speaks concisely to the state of medicated post-modern man: asleep, happy, and erect.
But the show also speaks, or tries to, to issues like fatherhood and promiscuity, homophobia and racism, and what it means to be fearful in a world reorienting itself around base rituals and savage rites of passage. Life is toil from beginning to end, sure, but with films like Batman Begins (which, just by its title, suggests a resetting of society along dogmas of fear and retaliation), it's not premature to consider that the opening decade of the new millennium will be a journal of our psychotic break--our own paranoid plague years. So "Rescue Me"--a weekly series that begins airing its second 13-episode season this week--follows the FDNY's Engine 62 with homophobic Chief Reilly (Jack McGee), bright-eyed rookie Mike (Mike Lombardi), doe-eyed lothario Franco (Daniel Sunjata), sleepy-eyed weirdo Billy (Ed Sullivan), doll-eyed dimwit Sean (Steven Pasquale), wet-eyed lumpen mensch Kenny (John Scurti), and our steely-eyed hero, Tommy, who besides resurrecting vicious habits (drinking, Catholicism), communicates with the ghosts of the four men his Engine lost on 9/11 and starts romancing the widow, Sheila (Callie Thorne), of his best friend and cousin.
"Rescue Me" is a testosterone opera through and through. The women are groupies or maniacs, there are cock-measuring contests in the station house, and the hero is a neo-Tony Soprano: desperately in need of therapy, Tommy hails from a profession so deeply rooted in masculinity that it prohibits any expression of weakness. Things suppressed surface in monstrous ways, and by the end of the first season, as Gavin freefalls into a constant cycle of rampages and suicidal depression, we're meant to understand that his behaviour has its roots all the way back in the Twin Towers. Therein lies the strength and weakness of the series: it has a single-mindedness about its melancholy that forgives the soapier twists and turns of its narrative, but at the same time, it's single-minded to the point of being simple-minded. Consistently interesting, however, is Gavin (performed with heat by Leary, the only American actor fit to play John Constantine), a man unbalanced enough to attempt murder and turn a relationship with a needy woman into something based on ugly guilt and barely sublimated violence. A surprise gay fireman, a woman firefighter assigned to the Engine when the insensitivity of Tommy's crew gains unwelcome publicity, and a series of severe beatings gratifyingly carry severe consequences, all.
What makes me cringe is that there are three or four episodes that play it embarrassingly straight, with lectures on the legacy of 9/11 couched in terms so blunt as to seem better suited to a Very Special "Diff'rent Strokes". Blame co-creator and sometime-scriptor Leary, whose strong ties to the New York Fire Department lend "Rescue Me" a great deal of authenticity while also accommodating those dead spots where "seriousness" cuts through the sarcasm for too-lengthy stretches. It's a series that climaxes more or less with a gay-rape narrowly averted by a baseball bat that first sharply observes the fragility of the line, literally, between hero and victim, then demonstrates how order constantly tries to reassert itself through the application of brute, phallic force. I'm fond of the show because it reminds me of the three-and-a-half years I spent as a Teamster, swearing like a sailor and honing my misogyny and hate of people in suits, the latter of which has only moderately dissipated with the passage of time. It's wise about how men in any dangerous occupation talk to one another as though they're men going to war, and how going to war swiftly becomes a meritocracy implicitly based on profane edicts, emasculating nicknames, acts of physical strength and daring, and half-formed plans to kill supervisors in the parking lot at the end of a shift.
At the bottom of it all, though, there's always the fact of at least one good, bracingly politically-incorrect belly laugh per episode. ("No, you look good, like the Marlboro Man. If the Marlboro Man smoked cock instead of cigarettes.") It's a shame that subplots like Sheila's son and Tommy's own younger kids get left by the wayside early and often, a shame that women and little people are used as comic relief--until, that is, one considers that "Rescue Me" is probably only read for profit as the way men compartmentalize, mock, and prioritize the things in their lives on a declining arc. It is what it is and, more often than most, it's more than it has to be; the first monument constructed at Ground Zero might be these cultural peeks at the role symbolic erections serve in our national psychology. "Rescue Me" contextualizes "bring it on" as national policy and war strategy: the politics of kicking ass and getting kneed in the privates in return encapsulated by three-alarm fires and our men in uniform being tossed on the pyre.
Sony brings "Rescue Me" back home in a three-disc collection housed in two wafer cases that slip inside a cardboard jacket. The lovely 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers preserve the show's quasi-vérité look, which only really stumbles during a few fire sequences that are underlit to the point of stock-footage distraction. As that's more the fault of the various directors than it is the telecine operators, colour me impressed by the visual presentation. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is meanwhile subtle and unspectacular but does reproduce the Von Bondies' rousing theme song in crystal tones. Crank it up--it beats the holy hell out of Backdraft's Bruce Hornsby anthems. Leary and Tolan provide yakkers for the season's premiere and finale, tracks, both, ruled by a great deal of silence yet indicated by a degree of passion for the project that transcends professional pride. The stories embedded therein are repeated in an hour-long making-of featurette on the first disc that transcends the usual junket reel by having Leary and Tolan go off in detail on the insights they personally bring and have been provided with by their contacts in the firefighting community. Important not to confuse fiction with fact (something the creative team laudably never does), there is enough truth in "Rescue Me" to make it popular among actual firemen where garbage like Ladder 49 and The Guys falls flat.
Also on Disc 1 is a seven-minute gag reel that works better than most blooper montages do because the show itself, at its most comedic moments, plays fast and loose like a locker-room bullshit session. Why the many "fucks" are bleeped-out here and in the commentary, though, is a real fucking mystery. A "Sneak Peek at Season Two" (4 mins.) is what it is, while something called "All New Season on FX!" (1 mins.) is the thing they're currently showing on the network to drum up interest in the further adventures of Tommy Gavin. The second disc features an 8-minute block of uncommented-upon deleted scenes that tends to consist of dialogue-driven passages and chats between Gavin and his American Werewolf in London-esque chorus of corpses. Unchecked, these can certainly veer into the mawkish, although the bonhomie is consistent. In addition to the commentary for the season finale, previews for Hitch, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Stripes, and Leary/Tolan's other series together, the lamented "The Job", round out the final platter. Originally published: June 7, 2005.