I love Rescue Me so much. It’s even better than last season [see below]. It just keeps on pushing the envelope in really exhilarating ways.
I’m a couple of episodes behind (I’ve been DVR’ing them), but last night I watched the one from two weeks ago in which the traditionally macho old fire chief, whose wife has Alzheimer’s and who has just barely, grudgingly, begun to budge an inch off his homophobia and disappointed baseball-tossing dadhood to accept his gay son, overhears the son and his lover making love. And so do we.
What audacity! It’s embarrassing to overhear anyone’s fleshly intimacies, any time, ever. But here we are at the side of this profoundly conservative and conventional father, listening to his son whimper, “Oh yes! Give it to me hard, Daddy!”, and we are brought right up against what liberal straight people accept gay love by not imagining: erotic equality, if you will.
The next morning the old chief greets son and lover with a stony silence. When his son figures out what’s going on, he says, “We’re in love, Dad! We express our love for each other just like anybody else.” And then we find out what’s really bothering the old man: he chokes out, “At least I thought you were the man.”
Oh, and he also says, “Don’t ever call me Daddy again.” It is so wince-making.
But in the next episode, if the preview is to be believed, he’ll be flipping burgers in an apron, hosting a festive gay barbecue.
That’s Rescue Me. Daring, but, I daresay, not gratuitous. Oh, by the way, there’s blasphemy too — Jesus Christ appears frequently to Tommy (Denis Leary), the show’s barely-sober antihero, and he’s stringy-haired and schmucky. (He roars off in his red sports car, which flaunts a bumper sticker: “Now you know what I’d drive.”) Much more painful to see on brazen display is the selfishness of parents who put their own fantasies, pleasures, and addictions way ahead of their children. But this is a comedy-drama, so it goes right up to the edge of tragedy but never over. (After all, this is a world in which the worst — 9/11 — has already happened.) In the previous episode, a little girl overdosed on her addicted daddy’s Vicodin, and there was a terrifying scene of domestic violence between Tommy and his girlfriend (who happens to be the widow of his best friend and cousin who died in the towers on 9/11). A week later, the little girl is fine, her dad may or may not be scared straight, and Tommy and Sheila are back to merely snarling obscenities at each other. Similarly, in earlier episodes, the fireman who’d been jilted by the fat girl, and bought a gun, did not stalk and shoot her. Instead, just in the nick of time, he met a very tall and avid veterinarian. And the old guy who tried to commit suicide in his garage only had an eighth of a tank in the car, so his attempt was a total failure, and now he has a thriving career in commercials.
It’s really interesting to discover, in a culture that has become a tiresome barrage of competing shocks, that both artists and the audience can still so crisply distinguish between a life-giving shock and a deadening one, between sensation and sensationalism. One makes you feel more. The other makes you feel less. “Rescue Me” is firmly in the former category.
[Review of the first season]
Raunchy, Sexy, Bitterly Funny
You have to understand that The Sopranos ruined television for me. I used to watch stuff like NYPD Blue and ER, but The Sopranos just leaves even the “best” of regular TV in the dust. The writing is so swift and dense and witty, the dilemmas so mortal and universal, the hilarity so mordant, the characters so morally piebald — compared to something like CSI-NY, The Sopranos looks like life itself. (One telling reaction I have to it: I have to see every episode — and then I never want to see it again. It’s past “entertainment.” It’s too real. I don’t want to replay Tony and Carm’s separation any more than I’d want to replay my own.) I’ve tried to watch ordinary series since The Sopranos spoiled me, but I can’t. I can usually see every plot point coming ten miles away, and even when I can’t, the surprises are gratuitously bizarre. I get bored. I don’t care.
So when they started advertising Rescue Me as “the best thing on TV since The Sopranos, I was like, yeah, right. I tried watching it, though — there was nothing else to watch but cable news — and at first, I didn’t like it much. The pacing was so spacy and laconic, and Denis Leary was so inert. He doesn’t really act, he’s just there, even in sex scenes. I didn’t get any real sense that his character, fireman Tommy Gavin, was seething with suppressed emotion. He just seemed inexpressive and affectless.
But boy, has the show grown on me. The first thing that got to me was, it’s funny. (Well, I’d hope so, Leary’s a comedian.) Actually, funny/sad/funny. (This is what they call a “dramedy” — a dreadful word that sounds like it means a shot of Scotch taken to prevent seasickness while riding a camel.) It’s the first show that really captures the taste and tang of life in NYC after 9/11 — that memory of smoke on the tongue. But no matter how potentially poignant the situation, the balance always tips toward laughter. When a character attempts suicide by carbon monoxide on this show, he fails — because there’s only an eighth of a tank in the car. Next episode, he’s got a new scheme for betting on the horses. Tommy’s screwing the widow of his cousin and best friend who died in the towers, and because he feels guilty about it, he gets into a fistfight with his priest, which you just know is Part II of a schoolyard brawl from 30 years ago. There are enough deadpan, throwaway lines in Rescue Me to give The Sopranos a run for its money. For instance, describing a mid-op transsexual who’s climbed a tree in Central Park as a protest, one of the firefighters says, “He’s got two tits and he’s saving up to buy a vagina.” Tommy says under his breath, “Isn’t everybody?” If you weren’t listening carefully, you could miss it. I love writing that demands and rewards that kind of attention.
Rescue Me is wonderfully politically incorrect (Tommy tells an obnoxious woman firefighter she has two uses as far as he’s concerned — “you can give me a blowjob or you can make me a sandwich”), bracingly obscene — sex, of every persuasion, seems to be these guys’ biggest diversion, drug, joke and solace — and aromatically male. I don’t know if this is must-see TV in firehouses, but what I maybe like best of all about the show is the way it feels like New York firefighters are the audience Denis Leary really wants to please. (According to a review reprinted at firehouse.com, “Leary himself lost a firefighter cousin in an earlier incident and has set up a foundation that aids firefighters and their families.”)
And as if all that weren’t enough, the man is as sexy as an alleycat.