Let me say it flat out: “Rescue Me” is the best show on TV. And its fifth season, which kicks off tonight on FX, promises to be as intense, gripping – and hilarious – as each of the previous four. More so, perhaps.
“Rescue Me” stars Denis Leary as TV’s most morally complex character – Tommy Gavin. Like the best TV creations, he’s at once hysterically funny, serious as a heart attack, a victim of his own bad choices and a product of his best instincts.
Like Tony Soprano, the only other central character on a TV series who has ever matched – or exceeded – Tommy as a fascinating figure of conflicting emotions, Tommy Gavin is his own worst enemy. He’s capable of houndishly despicable behavior. Yet like Tony, Tommy is ruled by something more than his id. Call them his better angels, despite his ambivalent (bordering on antipathetic) relationship with the Catholic Church.
Which is what makes Tommy Gavin such a great firefighter. If he believes in one single thing, it’s his job. But his faith in himself and his profession was shaken on 9/11 – and now he carries around a massive case of survivor’s guilt, which will rise up yet again in the new season.
That horrible anniversary – 9/11 – doesn’t hit all of us the way it does Tommy Gavin and the veteran crew of his firehouse. It’s the subject that dare not speak its name, if only because it is ever-present in their minds, in their dreams, in their subconscious. Each has learned to deal with it in his own way, many of them self-destructively.
In the new season, 9/11 – which has floated in and out of this series over the previous four seasons – returns to center stage. Specifically, a French writer (Karina Lombard) has come to New York to do research – including interviewing firefighters – for a commemorative book on the subject for the 10th anniversary. By the third or fourth episode, Tommy is on the verge of sleeping with her – and everyone else wants to.
But talking about 9/11 lights the fuse on Tommy’s barely contained demons. So does the death of his father (Charles Durning), who quietly kicked the bucket while sitting next to Tommy at a Mets’ game, at the end of Season 4. By the sixth episode of this new season, Tommy has relapsed after a full year of sobriety (he even got his one-year chip from AA).
As a result, he once again starts seeing the ghosts who have haunted him from the beginning of the series. He hasn’t been seeing them since he stopped drinking; now he’s seeing them in bunches. Those ghosts – of his cousin Jimmy Keefe (James Caffrey), his father, fire victims he couldn’t save – talk to him, reminding him of his slim grasp on both life and, it would seem, his sanity. Do they provide a valve through which he releases pressure? Or are they merely a symptom of the self-destructive urges that only begin with drinking?
Death certainly plays a key role in “Rescue Me.” It’s a factor in every fire call that Tommy and his cohort answer. But it has also loomed large throughout the series, and 9/11 was only the beginning. Since this series went on the air in 2004, Tommy has suffered the loss of his mother and his father, his young son (hit by a drunk driver) and his brother (a cop shot in the line of duty). His chief at the firehouse killed himself.
There’s lots more, all calculated to put the squeeze on his fiery temper and his short supply of impulse control. He has separated from and reunited with his wife several times (including an anger hump that may or may not have been rape and may or may not have produced his baby son) – almost always over his numerous infidelities.
In the past, Tommy has been exiled to a distant outpost (and returned). He’s been involved with his cousin Jimmy’s crazed widow Sheila (Callie Thorne), who dosed him with a roofie and tried to kill him. He has harassed men who tried to date his wife and his oldest daughter.
Tommy can talk his way out of almost anything – but he can never escape from himself. He’s found that to be particularly true when he stopped drinking.
The beauty of “Rescue Me” is that these deeply human characters – and everyone of them besides Tommy is given similar depth – are fascinating to watch and to root for. The new season gives you lots to chew on, including a new boyfriend for Tommy’s wife (played deliciously by Michael J. Fox), a bumpy relationship for Tommy’s oldest daughter with one of the firefighters, a disavowal of her parents by his younger daughter (who views her blue-collar parents as a liability among her upper-crust friends at private school).
Tommy himself struggles with the stirring of 9/11 memories and his renewed drinking, in the wake of his father’s death. The other firefighters have their plates full as well, including one who discovers he has a 9/11-related cancer, and another who begins spouting conspiracy theory about 9/11 being an inside job by the Bush administration.
If you haven’t plugged into this series before, give it a couple of episodes; it’s not like some shows, where you need to know a lot to be able to climb aboard the moving train. If you give it a chance, you’ll find yourself relishing the time you spend with Tommy Gavin, a character who stands with Tony Soprano, Don Draper of “Mad Men,” Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and Vic Mackey of “The Shield” as among the most compulsively watchable on TV.