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Denis Leary's "Rescue Me" character is controversial, but deals with loss and grief in a devastatingly realistic way.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/11/2007 3:57:40 PM ET 2007-06-11T19:57:40

Viewers who want to know exactly why the FX series "Rescue Me" is worth their time need just watch one five-minute sequence toward the end of the second season. It's a scene in which New York firefighter Tommy Gavin, played by Denis Leary, is hit with a personal disaster that tops even his numerous losses on Sept. 11. When it happens, he doesn't break down. He doesn't burst into anger. Instead, the camera simply lingers on his face as his shoulders slump and his eyes empty — he's been through catastrophe before, and he knows the terrain well.

This is what makes "Rescue Me" the best soap opera on television: It deals with grief, particularly male grief, more honestly and in a more subtle way than any other show on the air.

The series, which returns for its fourth season June 13, has the requisite surfeit of lurid, soap-opera plot lines. It embraces the best and worst traits of the daytime drama, defiantly reveling in emotionalism and bizarre twists.

But where daytime serials toss in one-dimensional evil twins or random demonic possessions without a second thought, "Rescue Me" genuinely cares for its weird characters and plot deviations. The writers give depth to their freaks, from Tommy's brash, bigoted, 50-something uncle, who inexplicably shacks up with an African-American little person (the always-marvelous Tony Cox), to his unhinged girlfriend (also his cousin's widow), who drugs him with roofies and Viagra and date-rapes him. Sound over-the-top? In the context of the show, it works.

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In a brave move, Leary set the series in a New York City firehouse in the years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. "Rescue Me" premiered two years before Hollywood took on the topic with movies such as "United 93" and "World Trade Center," and a shadow of enormous loss hangs over the entire show. Jimmy Keefe, Tommy's cousin and best friend, was killed in the disaster, and Tommy keeps having visions of him and others whose lives he couldn't save.

Thankfully, M. Night Shyamalan's influence isn't anywhere to be seen; these are not creepy, menacing ghosts. More than anything, they're melancholy, and even when Tommy's arguing with Jimmy about the aforementioned unhinged widow, there's an undercurrent of resignation in the scenes. This is a man who knows he's talking to his dead cousin, but somehow it's more normal than trying to make sense of what happened to his friends, his city, his country.

The other firefighters in Tommy's house cope with their losses differently, but no less believably. In dealing with his wife's gradual vanishing into the haze of Alzheimer's disease, the station chief, Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee), lashes out at his estranged gay son. Another firefighter, Lt. Ken Shea, falls into heavy drinking when a prostitute with a supposed heart of gold cons him out of his savings.

Earning both laughter and tears
Turning to the bottle is a common reaction for many characters on the show, so much so that it almost becomes a defining trait. Tommy's irritating sister and insufferable brother (Tatum O'Neal and Dean Winters, two astoundingly awful actors in an otherwise solid cast), his father, his cousin, Tommy himself — all are borderline, full-blown or recovering alcoholics. But unlike the usual Hollywood boozers, they're neither amusing, W.C. Fields-ish buffoons nor terrifying psychos. Or rather, they're both, or somewhere in between. These are real people easing their troubles the only way they know how.

Of course, Leary remains the emotional center of "Rescue Me," and his gravitas carries the series. Tommy doesn't spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the tragedies he's experienced; all he wants to do is make it from one day to the next. Tommy's hollow stare, his unexplained fits of sobbing and the way he seems not to feel the world as much as he once did underscore how catastrophic grief can strip the color from a life. His suffering also sets the stage for one of the series' most controversial scenes, in which he argues heatedly with Janet, his estranged wife, before pinning her down and having extremely rough sex with her. Many viewers complained that Janet was shown enjoying what was essentially rape, but regardless of your interpretation of the scene, the ambiguity in character motivation and mercurial mood changes feel true for characters who are out of their minds with grief.

It's the consistent tone of loss and the delicacy with which Leary and the other actors convey it that anchor the show. But for all the mourning and anguish, "Rescue Me" is also funny. Take Mike, the dim newbie to the firehouse, who has no problem getting frisky with his male roommate because both of them have established that they're not in any way gay. Or the ongoing wager among the crew about how long Tommy's marriage will last.

FX has wisely chosen to leave the dialogue uncensored — so we don't have to hear grown men yelling "shoot!" in moments of anger — but it's the kind of sexist, hyper-macho banter you'd expect from blue-collar New York guys. What makes it funny rather than offensive is that it's black humor of the best sort. We've seen the dark sides of these characters, and we know they face death every day on the job.

That's how "Rescue Me" earns both its laughs and its tears: It recognizes that you can't separate the two, that nothing is as straightforward and unambiguous as most television shows would have us believe. And in this era of blaring reality programming, ham-fisted sitcoms and carbon-copy police procedurals, that's something of a miracle

Patrick Enright is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Movies.com and Seattle Weekly.

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