I’ve ranted plenty in the past about how Rescue Me all too often turns into the Denis Leary show with occasional assists from the supporting players (mostly to play up how awesome Leary’s Tommy Gavin is), but when the guy brings it, he brings it. There’s a scene tonight that ranks up there with some of the best TV acting moments in recent memory, Tommy trying to explain how the thought of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 still haunts him all these years later and how much he resents the French journalist who’s come to the firehouse to record the reactions of the firemen to the events of the day for a 10th-anniversary book.
Leary stumbles over his words, as though his grief, resurrected and rubbed raw, is somehow seizing up his tongue, making it numb, and his long consideration of the journalist’s question of whether she can quote him allows so many emotions to play over his face (when he’s not even that close to the camera, no less). There’s stuff in the monologue as written that could seem maudlin (like the talk about the kids waiting for their daddies to come home), but the delivery saves it. This is a working-class guy trying to make sense of a tragedy no one can make sense of, and everything in it is played perfectly. If Leary’s looking for Emmy tapes, he could do worse than starting here. It’s a bracing reminder of some of the things Rescue Me does so well when it wants to. Of course, Tommy apparently now has the hots for the journalist (he asks his girlfriend to adopt a French accent in bed), so the episode reminds us of some of the things the show doesn’t do well as well.
But, you know what? That’s OK. This episode mostly shunts the supporting players off to the side (except for two really beautifully executed monologues by Daniel Sunjata as Franco and John Scurti as Lou) in favor of following Tommy on a series of barely connected adventures, but unlike season four, this episode has just as much humiliation in store for Tommy as it does heroism. When he saves a woman after a car accident, pulling her from the wreck shortly before it blows up, it’s kind of an eye roll moment (especially as it literally seems completely disconnected from everything else in the episode), but this episode also saw him challenge a paralyzed man to a fight and saw his cousin trick him into almost taking a drink and then smack him in the face.
If you want to see the difference between some of Rescue Me’s lackluster, earlier seasons and this rebuilding phase, you couldn’t do much better than starting here. In earlier seasons, Tommy would have taken the drink and would have blamed Mick for tricking him and would have wallowed in despair. Here, he gets smacked around, and it’s played for laughs. It’s nice to know that Peter Tolan and Leary haven’t forgotten that one of the things that made Tommy such an instantly galvanizing character when the show started was that he was equal parts good pal and asshole.
The show’s work to try to redeem the aimless death of Tommy’s father storyline from season four continues to be a little lackluster, as though the show seems intent on giving Lenny Clarke something to do as Uncle Teddy, since he pretty much has no connection to the storyline anymore but is still a regular. Clarke’s a fine and funny actor, but he doesn’t do so well with the dramatic stuff, which he largely reduces to a one-size-fits-all growl. Then again, that could be the general aimlessness of the storyline, which plays off a relationship that was always set in the show’s background and tries to foreground it without a lot of success. The same goes for Sheila, who’s also stranded in a disconnected plotline that doesn’t have much to do with anything and is mostly a snore.
However, the show is mostly abandoning a season four plotline that doesn’t work as well, it would seem. I’m not sure I buy that the New York Fire Department would so quickly abandon the Section Eight investigation of Tommy, especially when he was putting on his dead cousin’s gear and fighting fires on a freelance basis, no matter who hated Feinberg, but if the doctor putting Tommy in the clear for mostly nebulous reasons (needing experienced firefighters, even crazy ones, to stick around or somesuch) means that we’re never going to see him doing the fighting fires on his own time thing again, then I’m happy to suspend my disbelief as much as Leary and Tolan want.
I keep talking about Tommy, but he was in all but three scenes tonight (the journalist’s talks with Franco and Lou and a short final scene), which should have been a demerit but sort of wasn’t. Giving Tommy someone who needs him as a sponsor for his AA group is a promising development, and I liked him talking the guy through an urge to drink immediately before that monologue to the journalist in a snidely caring way that’s authentic to the character. He even permeated the plotline about the other guys buying a bar (and apparently ripping off another local bar and turning it into a Timber Lodge Steakhouse), popping in every so often to toss in a couple of wisecracks and randomly insult his friends about how much they suck.
As mentioned earlier, Tommy challenged his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who’s paralyzed (though Tommy didn’t know it), to an ass-kicking contest, and it was another scene that might have been played too much as a scene where Tommy was always picked on by the world in earlier seasons but now managed to walk the line between darkly funny and genuinely dickish on the part of both Gavin and the new boyfriend, thanks in large part to guest star Michael J. Fox, who makes this man a jovial bastard, pushing Tommy’s buttons and taking a weird joy in the line, “Ooh! I’m getting a hard-on!”
As always, it’s the firehouse stuff that works best, from the guys trying to say “Cock fight, cock fart” over and over to those two scenes with the journalist, Lou and Franco. Neither is as good as Tommy’s scene with the journalist, but Lou’s scene is genuinely touching, and Scurti pulls off the tears in a convincing fashion (Scurti Tears is a well the show goes to rarely enough that it still feels a bit shocking when they come). Franco’s scene, meanwhile, is the one that got most of the pre-season buzz, as he expresses his views (which Sunjata apparently shares in part) that Sept. 11 was an inside job. Conspiracy theories about actual events in history are usually the provenance of nutjobs on TV, not main characters (Mulder doesn’t count because that conspiracy was mostly its own thing, references to JFK aside), but Rescue Me does a good job of walking the line between neither endorsing these ideas nor dismissing Franco as a character for holding them. In the way he speaks, you can hear why someone who was a firefighter on Sept. 11 MIGHT hold those views, to make sense of the senseless.
It’s Tommy, though, who succeeds in really getting the show back to the roots of where it started out. His scene suggests that Sept. 11 is a psychic wound just waiting to be split open again, but particularly for these guys, who can be reminded of it by the slightest little thing.
Didn’t mention this last week, but the Rescue Me credits are among my favorite on TV, from the hushed greys of the images, which contrast nicely with the bombast of the Von Bondies song, to the way all of those images show spaces marked by an absence at their center.
I’m actually going to have screeners starting with next week’s episode, so maybe these can get up right around when the broadcast of the episodes ends on the East Coast instead of after the West Coast broadcasts I’ve been having to work with.
I do dearly hope that Tommy saving that woman comes up again at some point in the season. His random acts of heroism can be a little irritating.
“ You're like Margot-Kidder-hiding-in-the-bushes kinda crazy.”