The episode of a TV show structured like a stage play is a tradition as old as the medium itself, playing up the substantial roots that television has in the live theatre. For the fact that TV and the cinema mostly share the same basic toolkit, it’s always seemed surprising to the uninitiated that TV shows weren’t more cinematic right from the very first. While some of this was a function of the fact that it was too costly to produce a little film from week to week, just as much stems from the fact that TV started out as a place where playwrights, stage actors and vaudevillians went to ply their crafts. (There’s also quite a bit of radio in TV’s earliest DNA, but that’s a subject for another time.) The earliest dramas, the things that made up the so-called “Golden Age of Television,” were essentially live stage plays, written by some of the best writers the stage had to offer (and a few great writers the stage rejected).
As time went on, TV got away from its staginess, embracing more and more the kinds of cinematic things you couldn’t do on the stage. By the early ‘90s, stage-y dramas were essentially extinct, to the point where when something like In Treatment comes along, it feels like nothing else on television, even if it would have felt like everything else on television in the medium’s early days. This is, on the whole, a good thing. Those golden age of TV dramas, save for the occasional episode of Playhouse 90, are mostly lost, and the few that survive are usually pretty stagebound and preachy. Sure, they engaged with Important Issues, but who cares about that when the characters are merely didactic mouthpieces.
But the allure of those early days of TV calls out to shows big and small by the time they get to their fourth or fifth seasons. And at first, Rescue Me’s latest episode, “Iceman,” feels like it’s going to be a stage-y throwback. As Tommy stays behind in the bar to clean up after the other guys leave, he lines up a couple of drinks and downs them in rapid succession. As he does, the lights lower behind him, indicating we’re leaving the land of straight-up reality and entering the world of the fantasy sequence. And, indeed, the next thing we see is Tommy’s dad telling him how much he loved him and how good he was at everything he tried, then leveling him by saying that he’s, in essence, lying. As Tommy’s brother and cousin, both also dead, enter the sequence and begin to berate him, the episode gives up why it’s called “Iceman.” And, of course, the small screen can always use a little Eugene O’Neill, can’t it?
The sequence is a little indulgent – it’s basically a chance to let us all revel again in how hard the world has been on Tommy Gavin – but the fact that it was even attempted is terrific, much less that it then descends into Tommy shooting at a robber who’s come in to take the money (an especially skeezy guy who was hanging out at the bar around close). After Tommy takes him out with a shotgun (again with the indulgence), though, he reveals himself to be … the ghost of Tommy’s son? And here things start to get out of control, with Tommy soon blasting away at every specter he sees until, hilariously, Lou comes in to stop him, holding up his hands in his big, orange shirt.
From there, the episode heads back to Tommy and Lou’s place, where the two, who’ve been feuding, have a bit of a heart-to-heart. This seems like it’s going to shift the hour into some sort of off-format thing where all of the characters will confront Tommy about the various ways they wish he were different, especially as Lou points out that drunk Tommy is a more fun Tommy, a guy that Lou would rather hang out with, letting on that he sort of hoped when he got back to the bar, Tommy would be sitting there, downing a glass. He just forgets about how crazy drunk Tommy can get sometimes, and nearly getting shot was, apparently, just the reminder he needed.
Sadly, the episode turns into just another Rescue Me at that point, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but does feel as if the show had the idea for an off-format or stagebound episode (perhaps confined to the bar set) but then just couldn’t quite figure out a way to make it all pay off. The back half of the episode, while it felt tonally inconsistent when compared to the rest of the episode, was almost as good, in fact, concluding with a very un-Rescue Me-like cliffhanger, wherein Tommy leapt through a wall of flame to save his nephew, left behind at the scene of a blaze by a rather unthinking Mike.
On the other hand, the back half of the episode did utilize the supporting cast as well as the rest of the season has been, whether it was Mike and Damien playing the guitar or Sean passing out after urinating blood. The Franco plot, as always, feels a little disconnected from everything else, as though the show doesn’t quite know what to do with Daniel Sunjata at any given time, but having Lou decide that he should be a boxer promises interesting stories for both actors in the future, and the whole plot was probably worth it for the riff on Slow Joel.
Having Black Shawn so blatantly disappear feels like an excuse to just get Larenz Tate out of a handful of episodes, so they don’t have to pay him, and Needles going from asshole boss to helping Lou out in his scheme with Franco so quickly was bizarre enough that the show apparently felt fit to comment on how it seemed like the character was doing the plot’s bidding (though having him want to make money is as good an excuse as anything, I suppose).
But, by and large, this was another exceptionally strong hour for the fifth season, which is rapidly turning into one of the show’s best and a necessary corrective to much of what went wrong with the show in earlier years. I can see where that first 20 minutes of Tommy in the bar and then hanging out with Lou might seem too indulgent to many in the audience, but it was well-written and well-acted, and it kept the rest of the episode grounded. For a show about how grief often curdles into self-destruction, it felt like a necessary attempt to put everything that came after in the episode in necessary context.
- How nice to see Dean Winters again, who played one of the few characters who could ably deflate Tommy’s ego from time to time. I still think killing the character off was one of the bigger mistakes the series made. It was also good to see Charles Durning as Tommy’s dad again, even if his character always seemed a little ill-defined.
- When Lou talks about how a drunk Tommy is a more interesting Tommy, is it as much an indictment of the audience as anything else? Discuss.
- Still not feeling the plot with Teddy at the VA hospital, which just seems like as much of an excuse to keep the actor on screen as the Black Shawn storyline seems an excuse to keep him off screen. I know that modern economics mean that not every actor can be in every episode, but things could feel a bit more organic than they do here.
- “I guess I'm never gonna go to Cleveland.”
- Thanks to Alan Sepinwall for the image.