After dithering around for a handful of episodes, Rescue Me seems to be getting back on track with “Carrot,” which isn’t the best episode of the season but seems to at least have its eyes on the end zone. Back when FX picked up the show for a 22-episode fifth season, it was seen as a vote of confidence in a show that had fallen on hard times both critically and commercially. The fifth season has been a solid step up over seasons three and four, for the most part, but whether or not it can match season two or, dare we say it?, season one will depend heavily on how it closes out the stretch after a lot of episodes where the show's shaggy storytelling got shaggier than usual. “Carrot,” at least, is a good sign that these guys still know how to get back on the rails.
“Carrot” consists of a handful of long scenes, rather than the typical bushel of short scenes of your normal TV drama. I don’t think I’d realized just how thoroughly Rescue Me has given in to its stagey side until this season, when the show has had a number of episodes that could have worked just as well as stage plays (and a large number of musical sequences, no less). The structure of many of these episodes has been to have one scene set in one location and then filter in the characters as needed, starting out with, say, Tommy and Lou in the kitchen and rotating characters around until by the end of the scene, it’s Janet and Franco sitting there or something equally unlikely. The way these scenes work is very similar to the way a stage play would work or a multi-camera sitcom. Which is the only time you’ll see me suggesting a comparison can be drawn between Rescue Me and According to Jim.
I initially thought tonight was another bottle show, since so much of the action was set on the show’s standing sets with the regular characters, including the introduction of what will likely be a new standing set, Tommy’s new place. However, that’s probably not strictly true, since the opening montage, set to a blues riff and following Tommy through what feels like something that must be occurring in his reality until it very slowly tips over into nightmare, was probably fairly expensive (perhaps requiring the rest of the episode to adopt the bottle show motifs). Still, that nightmare set a great tone for the episode, suggesting that the show hasn’t forgotten that Tommy can be a big jerk. Hell, he even saw his uncle and cousin die in a car wreck (foreshadowing?) after seeing them getting drunk at the bar.
The one thing in the montage that didn’t work was the special effect that presented Sheila, then had her zap into a current that turned into Janet, then had her zap into Maura Tierney (whose name is apparently Kelly, but who will always be Maura Tierney to me). The special effect looked a little cheap, as did the later shot of Tommy in pain before the flames seemingly eating him alive. Plus, it all seemed to suggest that Tommy’s going to be caught in this infernal love triangle for his entire life, and even if that’s true, it probably didn’t need something this doofy (a later scene in the episode played these strings much better). Still, the montage ended with that great, haunting moment when Tommy and the audience realized he was standing in the aftermath of Sept. 11 almost simultaneously, then came across Jimmy in the wreckage. The nightmare was such a nice way of establishing all of the major things that have happened this season that it served as a solid way of saying, “OK. We know we’ve been dickin’ around, but now we’re getting back to the story.”
And for the most part, the episode that followed did get back to the story at hand. It opened with a long scene where Maura stopped by to flirt with every guy who seemingly wasn’t Tommy, then called Tommy Opie (later subject to some great ribbing from the other guys). I’m still not sure where they’re going with this character (presumably, she’ll sleep with Tommy at some point), but the energy Tierney brings to every scene she’s in makes them a lot of fun. Watching her toy with Tommy and, especially, Mike was terrific, and I also enjoyed her saying "Damien! That's perfect! He even has a vampire name!" One has to assume they didn’t just bring Tierney in for a handful of scenes where she torments the guys with her ineffable winning nature, so I assume there’s some tragedy around the corner (probably when we find out what’s in the box), but it’s nice to see Tierney flexing the old comedy muscles after being stranded on ER all those years.
If Rescue Me occasionally feels like a large collection of disconnected comedy sketches, then the episodes can rise or fall based on the quality of those sketches. For the most part, the largely unrelated material tonight, like the guys watching the sex tape or Garrity calling in Mike, Franco and Lou to figure out why a girl recoiled from his penis, was funny stuff, particularly that penis scene, which made good use of the guys’ chemistry. Even their tossed-off, casual homophobia didn’t feel as offensive as it could have since, well, the scene involved a guy showing his friends his orange penis. For once, in fact, the punchline was even worthy of the build-up. (And why would Mike have self-tanning lotion in the first place?)
Lou got stuff to do again, as we learned that his marriage is imminent (thus prompting Tommy’s move to his own place, which he will share with his daughter and, occasionally and more often than he would like, Black Shawn) and that he’s worried Tommy won’t be able to pull off the best man thing, so skeptical is he of the fact that Lou’s marrying the ex-hooker who stole all his money (and who wouldn’t be?). The scene where Lou asks Needles if he’ll be the buffer best man in the event that Tommy explodes is a good one, well-written and affording Needles some humanity he’s been lacking.
But I actually really liked the final scene, which should have irritated me, where Sheila told Tommy everything that he could expect from a relationship with her, from choosing her over Janet. Sheila works so much better when the writers take her seriously as a dramatic character, and they finally did after weeks and weeks of her being the crazy ex (here, she even got in a dig about how Tommy was really the crazy one). This was a nicely written monologue, and Callie Thorne, as she always does when handed material of this caliber, found every little nuance in it and played the hell out of it. Obviously Rescue Me is a hysterically funny show, but it works best when it takes the time to treat some of its characters and storylines with the gravitas they deserve. It looks like they’re figuring that out just in time to close out this season.
- OK, the season finale is just weeks away. Time to place your bets on who’s marked for death. I still say Damien.
- Franco boxing with a lesbian? There are only two ways this can end, and both of them are rather poor endings. I don’t have great hope for this storyline.
- Looks like FX is no longer down with the episode-specific publicity art (odd, since you'd think they'd want some shots of Tierney up), so you get giant Garrity.
- "What if she's got ears that are shaped like vaginas? Wouldn't that be cool?"