NEW YORK — “Rescue Me” has been playing with fire since the start.
This FX drama has dared to picture New York City firefighters as loutish, madcap and self-destructive — not just heroic. At its core is Denis Leary, whose titles on the show include co-creator, co-executive producer and writer, plus his starring role as Tommy Gavin, a flawed champion among New York’s Bravest.
After much too long, “Rescue Me” returns for its fifth season Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT, kicking off an extra-long run of 22 episodes.
As always, it’s a volatile mix of action, heart, raciness and dark humor.
While the series has a raw topicality, it’s rooted in the ruins of 9/11. Among Tommy’s fellow firefighters who lost their lives that day, a cousin (and Tommy’s best friend) died at ground zero, later haunting him in visions.
This season, Tommy’s wounds are reopened (and his hackles raised) when a sexy French journalist arrives at the firehouse, researching the tragedy for a coffee table book to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorists attacks.
Guest stars have always sparked “Rescue Me,” and this season is no different. First up: Michael J. Fox in a multi-episode arc gets under Tommy’s skin as the obnoxious guy dating Tommy’s estranged wife.
Fighting (fake) fires
But there are also fires to put out, of course. This explains why production crew, equipment and firefighters (some real, some make-believe) have descended on a block of Manhattan’s West 121st Street on a frigid January night.
This sequence, from an episode to air late this season, will show the men of 62 Truck responding to a call at a blazing brownstone. It will also introduce a character played by guest star Maura Tierney, who pulls up in a cab to find her home on fire, then defies Tommy’s efforts to bar her entry with a swift kick to his privates. (Can romance be far behind?)
Tierney isn’t around. Her scenes were shot the night before. The entire location shoot will span three nights.
“We haven’t even gone in the building yet,” says Leary, clomping around in his full firefighting outfit, “and we’ve been here half the evening already.”
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The block is bathed by lights mounted high on a cherry-picker, dousing the brownstone’s exterior. The street is barricaded so the fire engine (this one is owned by the show) can rush to its destination unimpeded. Meanwhile, a “real,” on-duty NYFD truck is parked out of sight around the corner. Every step of this fire scene has been authorized and is now being supervised by the department.
“Even though it’s fake fires that we’re creating, it’s real flame and smoke, with safety issues,” Leary notes.
The guy in charge of playing with fire is the show’s special effects coordinator, Conrad (“Connie”) Brink.
“My responsibility is to make sure this house doesn’t burn down,” he says. “My second responsibility is to make fire.”
With 48 years in the business, Brink (with, more recently, sons Jeff and Conrad Jr.) has had a hand in many of New York’s best cinematic pyrotechnics. Listing a few credits, Brink cites the films “American Gangster” and “War of the Worlds,” and the series “The Sopranos.” (Don’t blame the mob for all those nasty explosions; blame Brink.)
Long night for the crew
As Brink oversees from the icy sidewalk outside the brownstone, smoke from a smoke machine is issuing from a window, and raging flames (which are actually a row of propane-fueled jets) erupt from a couple of other windows. In postproduction, the blaze will be further enhanced digitally, then copied-and-pasted into the brownstone’s unignited windows.
“This is a simple job,” Brink says. “We’ve done warehouses with 30 windows all burning at the same time.”
You might think that when “Rescue Me” needs to make a dwelling look like it’s on fire, a vacant structure would be chosen out of simple convenience. Not in this case, as Brink demonstrates with a brief tour inside. This lovely brownstone is someone’s home, with the furniture and other possessions carefully moved aside and covered, to free up space for equipment, technicians and cables snaking everywhere.
“Everything in here is beautiful,” says Brink, admiring the owner’s renovation efforts. “He’s restored all the woodwork. And how’s that for a bathroom!”
Later, after the exterior shots are done, Tommy Gavin and his fellow firefighters will be filmed bursting in from the street to face the smoke-clogged front hall. But the rest of the action inside the apartment will be shot a few days later under more controlled conditions: on a set in a studio across town.
By then, the only evidence of the made-to-order inferno on West 121st Street will exist on film.
“When we’re finished,” says Brink, “we’ll pull all our stuff out, everything will be cleaned up, the paper will be taken off the walls and floors, and the guy can have his place back.”
But that seems far away as the shoot drags on.
“It’s starting to get old now,” Leary declares. “After 10, 11, midnight, it gets REALLY old. You really want to go home and go to sleep.”
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