B+

Rescue Me: "Control"

These last couple of weeks, Rescue Me has been a fairly dark ride, skewing far more toward the first word in the “dark comedy” equation. Perhaps as a balance, this week’s episode skewed perhaps too far toward the second word, but it was such a funny episode that I didn’t care that the plot movement was minimal on most fronts that weren’t the “Tommy’s drinking again” storyline. There were some dramatic moments throughout (and in some unexpected places), but this was pretty much just an episode dedicated to hanging out with the characters and having them make us laugh. When you’ve got characters as inviting and fun as this show’s characters can be, that’s a winning proposition.

“Control” certainly didn’t begin and end like it was a comedic episode. The first scene featured Tommy and Mike (the only one of the firehouse guys other than Lou who knows Tommy’s been drinking again) getting trapped in a basement rapidly filling with smoke while out fighting a fire. The whole sequence was probably the best firefighting sequence the show has turned out this season, a terrifying ordeal that started out badly enough (with Tommy and Mike arguing about Tommy’s drinking, focus not really on the job) and just got worse and worse and worse.

One of the best things about Rescue Me’s workplace scenes is just how readily it shows us that going into a burning building is both a thing that these guys do (so they feel comfortable talking about their personal lives while wandering through these hellscapes) and a thing that could lead to their deaths at any minute. How easily these scenes flip from one extreme to the other is what gives them their punch, and this was a great sequence for showing that, even if Mike’s stupid mistake with the tanks felt a little forced on a character level. It even ended with a good joke, the guys coming to Tommy and Mike’s rescue with the excuse that they were distracted by a Milla Jovovich poster.

Similarly, the episode ended with a montage of Tommy’s increasingly out-of-control drinking, as he visited a bar and even had a night-cap at his own place. It ended with a shot of his eyes in the semi-dark of his apartment, looking out into the shadows, as if willing one of the ghosts who visit him only sporadically now to come back into his life. It was a haunting end to the episode, nicely complementing the horrifying opening.

Everything in between though? Pretty much pure comedy. Scenes would often start off dramatically and then skew into weird comedic territory (or go in the opposite direction, as in Lou’s meeting with “the ghost of thieving hookers past”). Even the story of Tommy’s return to alcoholism was played with more comedy than you’d expect, as in the pretty terrific little scene where Tommy, who’d warned the guys not to let Mickey know he was drinking again, was let down by Black Shawn and Mike, whose description of how much Tommy liked coffee was so over-the-top that Mickey knew exactly what was going on. Yeah, having the dumb guys come up with a lie that doesn’t make much sense and then push it way too far isn’t the most original comedic device in the world, but this scene was funny enough to forgive that.

By and large, the show is handling Tommy’s fall off the wagon so well that it’s raising all storyline boats. Things like Tommy getting back together with Sheila should seem more been-there, done-that than they do, but because everything is viewed through the context of Tommy making self-destructive mistake after self-destructive mistake, these scenes are shot through with a comedic and dramatic tension that pushes them past all of the over-familiar territory they should reside in. I don’t know how long the show can keep this up (Tommy’s plunge back into the booze has been suitably rapid), but for now, the tension between both sides of Tommy is making this stuff fascinating. (Plus, the scene where Tommy told the other guys, only to have to keep qualifying whom they could tell, concluding with Needles wandering in and baffling everyone, was almost worth this whole storyline, even if this plot ends up petering out in the future or something.)

The rest of the storylines were more hit-and-miss. Having Lou’s scammer girlfriend (who absconded with most of his life savings at the end of season two) return felt like the latest in the show’s good faith effort to patch up some of the plot holes it’s left over the years (surely, Franco’s daughter cannot be far behind?). It’s always nice to see John Scurti get something dramatic to play, but at the same time, I’m not sure having him revisit a dud storyline is going to pay off in the same way that giving Lou a new storyline to explore would. (And for that matter, did the journalist just up and disappear after having sex with Lou? Giving that storyline a payoff that actually involved the character in question would be a nice touch.)

Similarly, the Sean storyline seemed to be trying too hard to be hilarious (what with his brother asking him mom to come and look at his BM and all), but it ended up in a very nice place and gave Steven Pasquale a nice moment to play with his mom, who told him about a long ago cancer diagnosis that she pretty much just soldiered through, letting him know that he was strong enough to get through this, regardless of how she seemed to favor his brother. It was a moment that could have felt cloying, but the actors made it feel sweet and earned instead.
The other characters continued to be tossed into storylines designed, seemingly, to show off their skills other than acting, with Franco finally winning a sparring match in the ring (Lou’s attempts to get to his opponent were another comic highlight) and Mike showing off his musical skills as Tommy watched his band rehearse.

Rescue Me’s supporting cast is so good that even these little vignettes are worth the time, but both of these guys deserve bigger storylines. In the case of Mike, in over his head with all of his new responsibilities, it seems like the show is headed in that direction, but the Franco thing (and I guess I’ll just say this every week) needs to find some direction. Also, again, we went and hung out with Tommy’s assorted relatives as they helped out at a VA hospital, and it was boring.

I know it sounds like I’m being hard on this episode, but I really did enjoy it. There was something that made me laugh in nearly every scene, and all of the more blatantly dramatic moments worked quite well. Because Rescue Me’s cast plays this goofy guy-centric comedy so well, it would be tempting for the show to just turn into a loosely plotted hourlong about hanging out with some hilarious firefighters. While I think that would be a no-win in the long run, I’m fine with that impulse so long as its relegated to hours like this one.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I realize that the bar is the same set and everything, but the lighting designers do a good job of making it feel like a different space, mood-wise, in every episode. Here, as the episode approached its climax, it was a warm little neighborhood bar near Mike and dripping with temptation near Tommy.
  • Another thing that makes the firefighting sequences work so well: The long, following shots of the guys as they go about their work make good sense of the geography of the fires they’re fighting. At no time in what could have been a confusing sequence tonight did the show lose its sense of where everyone was in relation to everyone else.
  • "He drinks so much coffee that we call him the Coffee King."

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