Appropriately, during the week of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, on September 7th, FX burns down the house after seven years and eight seasons of Denis Leary’s incendiary firehouse drama, Rescue Me.
With strong roots in Leary’s previous 2001-2002 ABC show The Job (where he played a cynical, beyond-politically-incorrect, in-your-face Noo Yawk Irish cop), Rescue Me became the gloves-off cable continuation of that show, with the shadow of 9/11 and its desultory aftermath hanging over a band of firefighting brothers in the Big Apple.
Leary’s Tommy Gavin is literally “haunted” by visions and conversations with the friends he lost that day, all the more poignant in that Leary in real life had a number of firemen in his family, and lost several of them in a tragic fire less than two years before the terror attacks – through a December 1999 Worcester, MA, warehouse fire, started by two mentally ill homeless people seeking warmth and shelter.
While not as high-quality, Rescue Me is sort of the small-screen answer to 2009′s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker — the tag line of which was the all-too accurate statement that “war is a drug.” Indeed, Jeremy Renner’s iconic Special Ops soldier in that film could probably have been Tommy Gavin’s long-lost kid brother or an illegitimate son he’d had as a teenager. Renner’s character is more uncomfortable shopping for groceries at Sam’s Club than he is dismantling a bomb, and listening to his clearly-disinterested girlfriend as she blithely fixes dinner and chitchats about the neighbors is more torturous than being waterboarded.
That’s just Tommy Gavin’s style. The classic “addictive” personality, Tommy’s life is waiting for the next sensation, be it a fistfight or fire, angry sex with his wife or on-the-side girlfriends, fights with his snot-nosed kids, a hockey or football game, or the next total trash-out with booze and coke. Like an Evel Kneivel daredevil or a gambler who bets the house, will he beat death, or will this be the time that death finally beats him?
And in Tommy’s case, there is always the feeling that if the Grim Reaper did win, it wouldn’t be a “loss” at all to Tommy. If there’s a heading under “Survivor’s Guilt” in the Merck Manual, Tommy Gavin’s picture ought to be next to the caption. Like Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan, a part of Tommy will always wish his name had been added to the casualty list, will always be “jealous” of the ones who didn’t make it back, who died a hero’s death on the battlefield. Did he live and they die just because of dumb luck – or because they didn’t flinch, because at the end of the day, they had the cojones and the courage – and he didn’t?
But what really seals the Rescue Me deal is that it’s more than just a fire procedural — it’s also a one-man character study like those other unapologetically unpleasant heroes, House and The Mentalist. At bottom, Rescue Me is about what it means to be a man today — especially a white, east coast ethnic, lower-middle-class man, in today’s post-feminist, gay-liberated, multicultural world.
The female characters on this show – acted by such heavyweights as Susan Sarandon, Tatum O’Neal, Gina Gershon, Callie Thorne, Patti D’Arbanville, Andrea Roth, and Maura Tierney – have been a counterbalance to the nonstop testosterone-high of the sweaty guys in the lockers and showers. Sort of. But since we’re mainly seeing them through Tommy and his crew’s eyes, they often come across as almost cartoonish harpies and sexual predators, and invariably whinier than Carmela Soprano when her Midol runs out. Don Draper from Mad Men is more likely to win an award from the National Organization for Women than Tommy Gavin is. In the series’ most notorious scene, he brutally date-rapes his soon-to-be-ex-wife (and the show implies that she actually enjoyed it). Tommy himself was actually drugged with Viagra after a bender and “raped” once himself.
When we think of a movie or TV show where there’s ”subtext” between the same-sex leads, we think of things where the writers and actors clearly play it so that it could be taken that they’re just good friends — or that they’re a lot more, too – depending on what the audience wants to think. Rescue Me is almost the opposite of this. Here, its about proving who isn’t “queer” (or worse, a sissy), who isn’t giving b*** jobs to the other guys, and who IS the biggest “alpha dog”. Now that the love that once “dared not speak its name” has become the love that “can’t keep its mouth shut” (as some un-PC wags have said), today’s men are getting an uncomfortable taste of what it feels like to be “objectified”, just like a sexy businesswoman walking by a bunch of catcalling construction workers. In many ways, Rescue Me is the Blue State, middle-aged answer to that similarly departing small-screen study of Masculinity 2.0, Friday Night Lights.
In this season’s signature scene (so far) Tommy silently watches a trendy bookstore setting up a window display of a pricey, $50 “Remembering 9/11″ coffee-table book. His face simmers into Charles Bronson’s slow boil in Death Wish, as he sees the upper-middle-class yuppies and recently retired bubbies as they ooh and coo, wide-eyedly gossiping and gesturing over the “tragedy of 9/11″ — HIS tragedy. The next scene shows him slamming a monster truck into the display window and running over everything and everyone in the store. The latter part was his fantasy, of course, but it says more about Tommy’s inner reality than almost anything else could.
In Tommy’s world, innocent children die in this car crash over here, while the cheating Wall Street exec or wife-beater gets saved over there. His band of brothers, the men he loved more than anything or anyone else (in a completely heterosexual way), died horribly in agonizing pain, crushed or burned to death on 9/11, or driven to suicide and self-destruction in the years since. Where’s the meaning, where’s the script, what’s it all about? What keeps the show from being completely nihilistic is that, appropriate for a standup comic, Leary keeps the show as comical as it is tragic. (Indeed, Rescue Me has used cancer, molestation, suicide, heart attacks, and even the car accident death of Tommy’s infant son for as much black-humored, gallows comedy as it has for tear-jerky tragedy.)
Ultimately, the show asks the post-9/11, post-modern, post-everything question: Where do the Tommy Gavins of the world fit in today? Just as was said when his Fox brethren, 24′s Jack Bauer and The Shield’s Vic Mackey bade their farewells, there can be no “happy ending” for a Tommy Gavin. (Indeed, while the series’ finale might just give Denis Leary his wish, for years producer Peter Tolan overruled Leary that the show should end with Tommy’s death. “His punishment is that he has to live.”)
While there will always be a need for police and firemen, like so many people and jobs in the new economy, Tommy Gavin himself is becoming obsolete. And he knows it, even as he keeps forcing himself to give the old community-college try, to update and adapt and even occasionally put on a happy face. In some ways, that’s his battle as much as fighting fire, and perhaps no less brave of him. Tommy Gavin is a (really flawed) hero all right (and a real, triple-A rated a**hole, too). And he’s also an inconveniently truthful symbol of our times.
** We should note that Denis Leary set up a very worthwhile charitable foundation to benefit injured/disfigured firefighters and firefighter widows and children. Check it out here.