There have been a lot of problems with Rescue Me over the years, but I never thought one of them would be the show’s references to Sept. 11. And yet over the past season and in tonight’s premiere, said references, which used to be one of the show’s strongest emotional touchstones, have become kind of awkward and strained. That scene where Tommy tries to tie every bad thing that’s ever happened to him back to the terrorist attacks is ridiculous, and the later scene where his cousin says, “Hey, it’s been almost 10 years, amirite?” is perhaps even worse. Sure, one of the central tenets of the show has always been that Tommy uses Sept. 11 as a crutch, one of many excuses he uses to let him off the hook for all of the bad shit he does to people. But it’s rarely been this brazen about it, and the fact that this final batch of episodes was held back specifically to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the attacks suggests that this is only going to get more blatant.
But the country, for the most part, is moving past Sept. 11. This is not to say that we’re not still worried about terrorism or that we weren’t happy and relieved when Osama bin Laden was killed or any of a million other things. But we live in a world where a lot of bad things happened because of those attacks, a world where the more pressing concerns have names like “deficit” and “unemployment rate,” and Rescue Me no longer seems to be a part of that world. Part of this is the fact that these episodes were filmed back in 2009 or 2010 and couldn’t be too timely. Part of it is that, by design, all of the characters have Sept. 11 as a massive touchstone. (Indeed, the only good Sheila scene ever, maybe, is pretty much just her monologuing about losing her husband in the attacks.) And part of it is that the show has never been able to move past what worked for it back in year one.
I imagine that these write-ups will often be a little more reflective on the show as a whole as this final season continues. Now, obviously, some of this is just the fact that not a lot happens in the show anymore. Tonight’s episode was very obviously a table-setting episode, and about the only major developments in it involved Tommy taking a drink of alcohol that he promptly spit out and Colleen getting wasted after Black Shawn asked her to marry him. Everything else was just setting the scene for conflicts to come. For example, Tommy, yet again, is trying to be a good husband to Janet, and now she’s friends with Sheila because the show hasn’t tried that in a while. But we all know that can’t last, right? So we’re just waiting for everything to turn to ruin.
But I’m also interested in just why this show, which seemed like it might turn into the next great TV drama for a couple of years there, never made that leap and, instead, turned pretty actively, annoyingly bad there for a while, before briefly rallying and finally collapsing in exhaustion. If you’ve been following these recaps for the past two years, I’m sure I’ll sound like I’m repeating myself a lot. But I can’t help but watch the show now and miss what I liked about it so much back when it was as great as it could be, back in the first two seasons and parts of seasons three and five. And then someone will pop up and I’ll start reminiscing about stupid plot twists of yore. Remember when Susan Sarandon kidnapped Franco’s kid for some reason? And remember when Teddy shot Tommy and everybody just forgot about it?
Unlike pretty much any other quality drama on TV, Rescue Me relies on its audience having no long-term memory. It’s structured very similarly to a long, rambling monologue by a stand-up comedian who’s just relating a bunch of stuff that happened to him recently or things he’s seen in his neighborhood. And that requires that not everything necessarily add up to a completely coherent picture of the world. And that structure’s fine. That structure actually works fantastically over on Louie, one of the best shows on TV right now. If Louie wanted to do a random vignette where he remembered Sept. 11, then went to a story about Louie being unable to find a public restroom or something, it wouldn’t feel all that jarring. But when it happens on Rescue Me, it sucks because the show refuses to play to its strengths and embrace the chaos. It desperately wants to be The Sopranos, when what it probably should have been all along is the TV equivalent of one of those one-man Broadway shows.
That’s become all too apparent in these last three seasons, all of which have featured episodes that basically stop everything to feature “Hey, have you ever noticed?” routines. For example, tonight’s episode features a sequence back at the firehouse after time appears to have jumped roughly 62 years (Janet is suddenly very, very pregnant, after not really showing in the scene immediately preceding, and she’s now friends with Sheila). That sequence is all about the guys hanging out and watching reality TV back at the firehouse after 13 days without fire. It mostly involves Mike and Black Shawn arguing about whether Jersey Shore or Flavor Of Love serves their respective communities more poorly, with occasional interjections from Tommy about how he’s going crazy. The scene is mostly there to remind us that, yeah, all of these people still exist, and it’s also there to give the show the loose, realistic feeling it’s often had in its best episodes.
But I don’t trust that loose, realistic feeling anymore. You’ve gotta have faith in a show like this, a belief that all of that loose realism can turn to searing drama at a moment’s notice. And it’s hard to have faith in Rescue Me after this long, long ride, when all of the characters feel like they’ve gone through the same four or five beats at least a couple dozen times. Yeah, I got a thrill at seeing Tommy’s dad and Mayhem from the Allstate commercials pop back up on the show, and it was kind of awesome to have Tommy spit the drink out, then stride back into the bar and open fire on the bottles that have bedeviled him so long. But it doesn’t feel like the turning point it should feel like simply because we’ve been down this road many, many, many, many times before. There’s good stuff here, but it’s all setting us up for a slow burn that I have no real faith will pay off.
And even if it does, all that will earn is the sense that I haven’t utterly wasted my time watching this show all these years. Rescue Me is no longer playing to be up among the lights with the greatest dramas of all time. It’s now simply playing to have people not snort derisively the second its name comes up. And after such a listless premiere—a premiere that featured a lot of stuff that could pay off handsomely but probably won’t—I’m not immensely hopeful.
- Hey, everybody. I know you’ve missed me, and after I briefly thought about ditching the show forever last summer, I’ve decided to see this thing through. It helps that FX sent out the entirety of the season, though I can’t really work up the necessary enthusiasm to watch all of them ahead of time.
- Oh, hey, Damien has joined Tommy’s vision crew, though he apparently turns up even when Tommy’s sober, this time holding a knife. I know it’s all about his guilt or whatever, but the treatment of Damien still strikes me as among the worst things the show has ever done (and that’s saying something).
- OK, that scene where Black Shawn proposed to Colleen was kind of cute.