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Firefighter, why not save thyself

'Rescue Me' returns, rife with its lead's adultery, alcoholism and angst. But somehow we laugh.

June 19, 2005|Kate Aurthur | Special to The Times

If you've experienced a fire in your house, you understand the contradiction of firefighters: As they execute the necessary functions of their unimaginably terrifying job, they also make a huge mess that other people have to clean up. In Denis Leary's "Rescue Me," which begins its second season on FX at 10 p.m. Tuesday, that messiness spills into the lives of its characters -- New York City firefighters -- and finds them helpless.

As fodder for a series, mining that drama -- and the humor that accompanies it -- has produced one of the best shows on television.

When we last saw Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, he stood alone in the middle of his estranged wife's kitchen, having discovered that she had taken their three kids and moved away without telling him. After smashing about with a baseball bat, he determinedly downed a bottle of vodka, finally committing to the fact that -- shaky attempts to sober up aside -- drinking was all he had.

The bleakness of that final image crystallized what the first 13 episodes of the show had been about: Tommy's downward trajectory. Because of Leary's charm in this self-appointed role -- he created the show with his producing and writing partner, Peter Tolan -- it is easy to watch "Rescue Me" and forget that he is playing a raging, reckless alcoholic. But the fact that the series has plenty of comedic bits and amusing characters should never fool the viewer into forgetting that Leary's Tommy is an antihero and "Rescue Me" is a tragedy.

From the beginning of the show, Tommy was unhinged -- he imagined ghosts talked to him, most often and most palpably his cousin, Jimmy (James McCaffrey), a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. For most of the season, though, Tommy was surrounded by actual people -- his children, co-workers and Janet (Andrea Roth), the wife with whom he hoped to reconcile.

But in the season finale, dead Jimmy -- formerly his best friend, even in hauntings -- turned on him.

"You're deader than all of us combined," Jimmy spat hatefully, gesturing at the other ghosts who had gathered to berate Tommy. Inevitably, this hallucination happened while fighting a fire, and Tommy's disorientation in the burning building led to a ceiling collapsing on Franco (Daniel Sunjata), the firehouse stud.

When Tommy's bosses confront him about his freakout, he demands a transfer and then drinks and drives home, only to discover Janet's abandonment. Tommy's darkest impulses -- as embodied in Jimmy -- were winning. And fans of the show were left bereft.

Could it get worse? Yes. Season 2 opens three months later, with Tommy dreaming that he is the one a ceiling fell on, and as he is dying, he sees a montage of his life. Then he wakes up to find himself passed out on the floor of a nearly unfurnished apartment. Enraged -- seemingly because he has awoken -- Tommy punches a pillow he has attached to the wall. He's a disaster.

FX provided the first three episodes of the new season, and in them, the other "Rescue Me" characters are faring poorly also. Mike (Michael Lombardi), the youngest member of the firehouse, has become an increasingly menacing stalker of his ex-girlfriend; Jerry (Jack McGee), the chief, is taking care of his wife, who is degenerating from Alzheimer's; a recovering Franco is now addicted to painkillers.

Worst off is Sheila (Callie Thorne), Jimmy's widow, now Tommy's pregnant girlfriend. Their forbidden relationship is the reason for his estrangement from Janet, and it was the guilt he felt after its discovery that led to his imagined repudiation by Jimmy. But even though he has nothing -- Sheila writes Tommy a furious note that says "We are all u have left" -- he doesn't love her. And that is slowly driving her to madness.

With all this misery, it is a bit of a shock that "Rescue Me" is as funny as ever. In one scene during the season premiere, Tommy takes out his aggression on a vendor at ground zero in lower Manhattan -- one who is shilling 9/11 memorial cookies. Tommy's ranting -- as he upends the vendor's table, urinates on the cookies and gets arrested -- echoes the ADD-infused comedy routines that made Leary famous in the early 1990s.

But it's a credit to the show's evolving complexity that it is Tommy the character, not Leary the man, we are watching in those moments. The scene's best line even goes to someone else: "A fireman making a fool of himself," says the arresting officer dryly as he handcuffs Tommy. "Haven't seen much of that lately."

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