With the anniversary of 9/11 just days away, Rescue Me, the Denis Leary series he co-created with Peter Tolan, airs its final episode tonight on FX. Born out of the ashes of the fallen twin towers, Rescue Me followed the exploits of Ladder 62, one of the toughest and best firehouses in New York City. The central character on the series was Leary’s Tommy Gavin, one of the most selfish, fucked up characters ever to grace the TV landscape. Tommy never got over the death of his cousin, Jimmy (played in flashbacks by James McCaffrey), who died in one of the towers. The survivor’s guilt that Tommy carried with him lead to him seeing apparitions of his dead cousin, along with other victims he wasn’t able to rescue throughout his career. This storytelling technique was used throughout the early seasons, but eventually fell away as the Tommy came to grips with his despair and his alcoholism.
Tommy was also a product of one huge dysfunctional mess of a family. They included his brother, Johnny (Dean Winters), a homicide detective who gets killed in the line of duty; his ailing father (Charles Durning) a World War II vet with limited emotional range; his twisted sister, Maggie (Tatum O’Neal in a career resurrecting role); his cousin, Mickey, a priest who abandons the cloth because he misses getting laid; and his Uncle Teddy (Lenny Burke), a former fire fighter who goes to prison for shooting, point blank, the drunk driver who killed Tommy’s young son. At home, Tommy was married to Janet (Andrea Roth), who loved him, hated him, and then forgave him despite his hundred flaws, among which included sleeping with about half of New York. Of course, Janet had her share of flings, too, including one with a wheelchair bound, loudmouth played by Michael J. Fox (Rescue Me had a knack for bringing in some exceptional guest stars). The most significant affair that Tommy had was with Jimmy’s widow, Sheila (played with crazy abandon by Callie Thorne). Sheila nearly burned Tommy to death when she accidentally lit on of their love nests on fire. At the time, Tommy had been drugged by Sheila, so he didn’t remember any of it. Later, she told him that she saved his life and that he caused the fire.
That kind of preposterous plot twist happened all of the time on Rescue Me. Those of us who stuck with the show throughout its run let them slide, though. You never knew when Leary and company were going to shock the hell out of you with an exceptional hour of television. They had a knack for sucking you in with ridiculous antics between the guys in the firehouse, and then shoving a red hot poker into your windpipe with something so heartbreaking or heartfelt that you gasped for air each time you rewound the scene to watch it over again. Props to FX for allowing Leary, Tolan and company to create the kind of unflinching show they wanted, and allowing them to trip over themselves as they found the path they wanted to take the characters down. I guarantee a series like Rescue Me would not have survived on the four major networks.
Rescue Me wasn’t just about the Gavins, though. The men (and one woman- yes, we remember you, Diane Farr) of Ladder 62 provided amble drama and laughs throughout all seven seasons. Lou (the great John Scurti) fell in love and got scammed out of all of his money; Franco (Daniel Sunjata) had an affair with a rich woman (Susan Sarandon) and then handed over custody of his daughter to this woman who would be able of care for the child better than he could; Mikey struggled with his sexuality (a brave performance by Mike Silletti); Sean went into a coma, resulting in musical episodes (featuring some fine singing by Steven Pasquale); “black” Shawn (Larez Tate) emerged as an important character and a future son-in-law to Tommy; and of course there was the tragic downfall of Tommy’s nephew, Damien (Michael Zegen).
For me, the most devastating loss ever felt on the show was when Tommy’s son, Connor, was killed by the drunk driver. Leary did some of his most remarkable acting in the aftermath of this character’s death. I don’t think he received enough credit for the work he did on the show. Then again, most of the cast was overlooked when awards got handed out. Ask most of its fans and they’ll tell you that Rescue Me was not an easy show to watch. It was inconsistent almost on a weekly basis and no matter how many times Tommy looked like he was going to right himself and finally become a decent human being, he’d have another drink or get in another fight or let his dick lead him into some other woman’s bed. Yet, in real life it takes years, sometime decades for people to curb their bad ways. As unrealistic as the situations on Rescue Me sometime because the series was always grounded in reality. These characters felt real, it was just the situations that felt made up.
Last week’s cliffhanging episode was an ideal example of how great Rescue Me could be. After spending 45 minutes at the wedding of Tommy’s oldest daughter, Colleen (Natalie Distler), the show, in it’s last 10 minutes, took us to one last fire. As the situation for Ladder 62 became more dire, it became apparent that some or maybe all of the men would not survive that night. After so much joy and happiness, when all of the characters seemed to have finally found some peace, the world explodes. That’s just how it is in the real world; and that’s how it always was on Rescue Me.