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Rescue Me: "Menses"

 Todd has his hands full this week, so I'm stepping in to monitor the progress of the farewell season of Rescue Me. Tonight, that was a chore equivalent to baby-sitting somebody's Chia Pet so that there'll be a witness if it delivers its first word. Last week's season premiere ended with a bit of a bang, with Tommy, having promised the uncle and cousin who'd been shepherding the daughter he'd done so much to screw up that he was going to deal with them "in a manner that will be both fitting and just", taking a shotgun to their crowded bar. Not a word is said about that tonight. If the cops are looking for Tommy, they don't seem to know where he lives. Neither Teddy nor Mickey put in an appearance; for all I know, they may still be down on the floor, hiding behind the bar. Colleen, whose tumble off the wagon was presumably Tommy's cue to go all Carrie Nation, does appear, and from the looks of things, Tommy's both-barrels response to  finding her passed out in the storage room was a great idea, almost as good as when he put her on the path to recovery by almost drowning her in a baptismal font. I can't say that this thought would have ever occurred to me independently, but maybe, in the way he handled his daughter and the way he treated his kinfolk, Tommy was right all along.

That's the problem I've always had with Rescue Me, even going back to those long ago days when a lot of people thought it was a great show, and even a doubter like me had to concede that it was exciting and interesting, and often seemed to be on the verge of actually being about something. Even then, I thought it had a tendency to go soft on Tommy, and fall into line with the tendency that Denis Leary has always had to wallow in, and even sentimentalize, loutish urban machismo under the pretense of exploring it. The show couldn't get enough distance from Tommy and his fellow primates to satirize them, and it didn't seem to want any distance from them, even when they came across as case studies in acute homophobic panic. 

There's a famous speech Leary makes in the pilot, about how people first admire the heroes they see in the wake of a nightmare like 9/11, and because they admire them so much, they overreact when they discover they're human after all and begin to see them as monsters. The problem with that speech is that Tommy isn't an admirable but flawed human being: he really is a monster, a violent, self-centered alcoholic homophobe and occasional rapist, whose main reason for continuing to run into burning buildings is that it feeds his adrenaline addiction. There's no reason you couldn't make a good show that dared to ask the audience to relate to a monster; I seem to recall a little series called The Sopranos that went that route with some success. But Rescue Me has often had an undertone of special pleading, as if the point is supposed to be that poor Tommy could never really be a monster, no matter what he does to earn the title. You get the feeling that Leary thinks that any rancid behavior, so long as it's committed by a hyper-verbal penis on legs with solid blue-collar credentials, is defensible because it's liberating wild man behavior, a brave last stand against the forces of political correctness and the evils of the feminizing influence.

Two episodes in, the danger of becoming too comfortable with women and their needs--and I don't mean their sexual needs, I mean the chance that they might ask a man to pick up tampons at the drug store--is the clearest detectable thread running through Rescue Me's final season. The damn women--Tommy's pregnant wife, his ex-mistress, his grown daughter--have taken over his living space, handing out grocery orders and making it difficult for him to sit on the sofa contentedly scratching his balls. They  gather around the table, whispering and giggling and all but predicting that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor. They get along very well together, which probably means they're up to something. Fleeing the house on a tampon run, Tommy runs into one of his old story-arc buddies from a previous season: Kelly, who is played by Maura Tierney. In a development that seems a little uncomfortably exploitative of the actress's own offscreen health problems, Kelly is suffering from cancer. "Is it serious?" asks Tommy, master conversationalist. "Breast," she says. "I'm down one." I don't know which speaks worse of Denis Leary's opinion of his audience: that he left that line in the script, or that, instead of moving on, he then asks Kelly to explain what it means. 

Kelly is very supportive of Tommy's problems with his shrill household coven. She may be a sister, but she's too honest to pretend that women aren't, you know, just a pain in the ass, especially when it's their time of the month and they all start ganging up on you. It's when the writing is this crude that you're really grateful for the show's ability to attract acting talent the likes of Maura Tierney: if you tune out on the content of what she's saying and just listen to the way she says it, the evening may not feel like a total waste. (Leary has been "acting" for some twenty years now, but he's still basically a comedian whose range goes just as far as his ability to remember to answer to the names of the characters he's playing. When his lines aren't meant to be funny, the best he can do is insert some distracting pauses and awkward intonations into his delivery, presumably on the theory that it makes him sound "natural.") 

The station house stuff would still feel like a waste of time no matter who was playing it. There was a moment last season when Lou was confronted by his doctor and told that he was absolutely in no physical condition to continue to be a fireman. On a different kind of show--one that was actually interested in exploring the dramatic possibilities that it raised, one where the supporting cast didn't exist just to give the star and co-creator something to react to--that might have led to a real story about a middle-aged man in a deep rut who had to find a way to do something different with his life or accept that it was over. Here, it's an excuse for some wacky antics involving the other guys trying to take Lou's physical for him, complete with urine sample slapstick and that hilarious standby, the two-guys-in-a-bathroom-stall-who-don't-realize-that-someone-can-hear-them-and-they-sound-like-homos routine. As for the scene where Tommy reacts badly to Black Shawn's telling him that he wants to marry his daughter, I assume that it was deliberately inserted into this episode just to establish that Rescue Me is neither as funny nor as edgy as Friday Night Lights, which had an asking-the-hostile-dad-for-his-daughter's-hand scene in its final episode last week that was, at a conservative estimate, eighteen hundred gazillion times better.

Rescue Me, which premiered in 2004, rose from the ashes of the post-9/11 mood in America, and the show was never better or more honest than in the early episodes when the firemen complained that the magical power of the word "fireman", when uttered in conjunction with "9/11", was no longer the surefire yellow brick road to pussy heaven that it used to be. Back then, the show often seemed to want to be about guys who (as Todd wrote here last week) used 9/11 to justify their own bad behavior. More than once, it slipped and felt like a show that didn't know how to do anything but try to shock you with its characters' bad behavior, and used 9/11 as an all-purpose excuse for why you should care. Now. we're farther away from 9/11 than we were when the show started. People joke about it more easily and have woven it into the fabric of their lives and our country's recent history. We've got some perspective about it. And Tommy seems more obsessed with it than ever, even as the show seems more and more hard up to provide a reason to give a shit about Tommy besides the fact that he's haunted by 9/11. After Tommy and Black Shawn have had their unthrilling encounter, Lou says, "If that's how it begins, I can't wait to see how it ends." After all these years at Tommy Gavin's side, he ought to know better than anybody that a lot of things that begin promisingly end by just sort of dribbling away.

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