For roughly the first half of tonight’s Rescue Me, I had my mouth open in horror, convinced I was watching the worst episode of the show ever made, a weird, inconsequential hour that indulged in almost all of the show’s worst tendencies and didn’t do anything to show off its best. And then right around that midway point—right around when Maura Tierney showed up, of course—the episode took a gigantic turn for the better. Outside of a few little stupid moments in the back half, it was the best episode of the season so far. So what the hell are we to make of that? What is this show really? Is it the vain, self-indulgent, smug show of the first 20 minutes? Or is it the bruised, honest show of the last 20 minutes? There was a time I would have said with certainty that the answer was the latter. But if the show has to be divided between these two selves, at least it seems to be siding with the latter.
Let’s start with the opening half, which was really, really bad. The scene with Tommy talking to the news reporter wasn’t bad at first, and the report about Jimmy was a serviceable imitation of a local newscast (even if the part where the reporter walked in front of the Sept. 11 memorial looked badly CGI-ed, even though I kind of think it wasn’t). I could mostly set aside my questions of logic and plausibility—would a newscast really do a random story about Jimmy?—with easy enough answers—they wanted to do a representative story about a fireman lost in the attacks and landed on Jimmy at random (and for convenience of story sake). So far, so good.
But then Tommy sat down to talk to the reporter herself, and the whole thing took an odd turn. At first, this wasn’t bad. Tommy’s interview excerpts were of the sorts that might pop up in a story like this, and though he seemed to be the main interview subject (even more than Sheila), that kind of made sense, since he and Jimmy were best friends. But once the news report turned to the story of Damien and then a long, unedited section of the interview with Tommy that seemed designed to address criticisms of the show (like its self-involved storytelling sensibilities and weird misogyny) as much as anything else, the questions became too much to handle. Why, exactly, would a reporter assigned to do a puff piece turn that piece into an overall criticism of the fire department? Why would she pin all of those concerns on Tommy, instead of someone in actual authority? And why would a news station agree to air so much of this piece—over five minutes—with most of it consisting of a reporter asking a man questions that no one in the audience would be terribly interested in the answers to? The show is trying to have Tommy’s failings stand in for both the FDNY’s failings (whatever they may be in the Rescue Me universe) and its own failings. And that’s ridiculous.
It gets worse, however. After the piece has aired, the guys in the firehouse start to fight—like they do—and Franco intimates to Tommy that, whoa, with what he just said, every single major news network is going to come into town and want to do a story on him, with the interview ending up all over the Internet. I can buy the clip becoming a YouTube thing, but every news network wanting to make this a story? That I find harder to buy. The whole world coming to be excited and intrigued by the antics of Tommy Gavin? That’s just the ultimate in the show’s cheap narcissism, and I hope it doesn’t happen, that Franco’s paranoia doesn’t pay off. (Though, honestly, I wouldn’t put it past the show to ever forget this happened as soon as next episode.) All of this is supposed to highlight the fact that the FIREHOUSE IS FALLING APART, a plotline that’s supposed to have been building for two seasons now, except when it hasn’t. (The guys are all buddy-buddy in one scene, then at each other’s throats in the next. It’s… odd.)
This was followed by an excruciating scene where Tommy called home and had all four women living there tell him how much they hated the reporter that made him look bad, followed by a scene where Teddy, Mike, and Black Shawn went to rent out a reception hall and found themselves discriminated against by a black woman because they were Irish. No. Really. If I hadn’t just read Adam Cadre’s excellent blog post on Ulysses S. Grant (wherein he talks about tensions between abolitionist supporters of African-Americans and the Irish in the mid-1800s), I might have found this even more ridiculous. But even with that bit of knowledge—which I highly doubt Denis Leary and Peter Tolan were intending us to think of—the scene was perhaps the nadir of the whole show, a weird, ridiculous attempt to build comedy around something that wasn’t especially funny and had an air of preening venality to it. Also mixed up in here was a scene where Sean had sex with his new girlfriend, then was horrified by a smell in her apartment after they finished. (Maybe it was the dog, Mike suggests, saying that Sean needs to relax and enjoy his relationship while it’s young. But it’s not the dog, of course.)
But then the episode started to settle in. The scene with Mike and Sean I just described was a nice restatement of their friendship (even if Mike has gone from an absolute idiot to some kind of firehouse sage, knowledgeable on all things), and it was the kind of thing a show can do this late in its run, to remind us of how much we’ve enjoyed the characters over the years. And there was also a nice scene where Franco showed that he was ready to move on, to embrace a leadership role in another house (in a way he probably would have long ago if he weren’t a character on a TV series).
And, again, the scene with Kelly was just terrific. She needed Tommy to bring her by some stuff, and she was making some brownies. (Throughout, I thought they were going to be revealed as pot brownies, thanks to her medical marijuana, but it seems that, no, they really were just brownies being baked as a gift.) What I loved about this scene was how it was, once again, about grief, this time for everything Kelly had lost from her disease. She threw shit around the kitchen. She lamented how she wasn’t sexy anymore (I beg to differ). She kissed Tommy and begged him to go home to his wife and kiss her like he’d just kissed Kelly. Granted, these are the broad outlines of a scene that might have irritated me with other characters, but I like the way that the show is using Kelly as a catalyst, as someone that can spur Tommy to change. This was another long scene, but once again, it was worth building an episode around.
Which leads us to the episode’s ending. Sure, there was another lame scene with Sean trying to deal with his girlfriend’s stinky apartment, and that ending where Tommy and Franco growled at each other was pretty lame. But the firefighting sequence was one of the best—and one of the most tense—in the show’s history. Part of that was the fact that, well, this show is almost over, so if Franco was going to die, it would be happening now. Part of it was just that the show came up with a cool scenario for a narrow escape. And part of it was the construction of the whole thing, nicely setting up just how everything was going to fall apart and then letting it do so. Plus, the episode let all of the little beats of the rescue play out. It was a reminder that when this show is at its best, firefighting is always somewhere near its heart. That hasn’t been true for so long that it’s bracing to see it happen again. And even with an awful first half, that firefighting action was enough to nearly redeem everything.
- Lou talks about becoming a sous chef. My dream of a series where John Scurti plays a mystery-solving chef grows closer and closer to reality!
- Seriously, though, that scene with Teddy and the reception hall woman was just embarrassing.
- "Do you think that your kisses work some sort of magic?" (I liked this method of taking Tommy down a peg. Kelly doesn’t find him irresistible, and that’s a good thing.)