Denis Leary, star of the FX firefighter show "Rescue Me," at… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
For many, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will be a time for sober and solemn reflection. But for FX's "Rescue Me," those words have never been part of the equation.
The drama, which centers on a crew of battle-scarred New York City firefighters who try to get past the tragedy with a mix of black humor and bad choices, ends its seven-season run Wednesday the same way it arrived: loud and unforgiving.
For Denis Leary, who co-created the show along with his longtime collaborator Peter Tolan, "Rescue Me" was as much about how New York's bravest grieved as it was about his own struggles with the untimely deaths of his firefighter cousin and a childhood friend — both of whom perished in the infamous Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire.
"It's amazing how it doesn't leave you," Leary said of the 1999 Massachusetts fire. "It's right below the surface."
Below the surface is a bit of an understatement. In "Rescue Me," the aftermath of the terrorist attacks cuts through each episode like a giant fault line threatening to bring everything crashing down at any second. The men of 62 Truck are overwhelmed by survivor's guilt — most stagger toward healing, but Leary's Tommy Gavin seems to relish picking at his scabs and scars.
"Normal is dead and buried beneath ground zero," Gavin tells his wife in this season's first episode. "I'm just trying to make sense out of what's left above ground."
The emotional trauma underscores one of the show's overarching themes, which is — as Zack Van Amburg, president of the studio behind the show, Sony TV, put it — "at what price does heroism come?"
Or, as Leary put it, "How do you stay on the truck?"
For Gavin, staying on the truck has meant wading into an unending stream of booze and women. His behavior not surprisingly has jeopardized his family, friends and career.
"Tommy is and was a very damaged and selfish guy," said FX President John Landgraf. "He caused an enormous amount of pain to his loved ones and colleagues."
On most television shows, a character like Gavin would have hit bottom early and then recovered. But on "Rescue Me," his character just kept digging himself into deeper, darker places. Among the highlights — a torrid affair with his dead cousin's widow; and, in one of the most controversial episodes, he raped his wife, Janet. Then, last season, he bar-hopped with his daughter in one episode and in another gave her a 180-proof baptism in an attempt to literally make her sick of drinking.
Leary praises FX for letting Tommy exorcise his demons on his schedule and not theirs. Leary and Tolan also recognized that there was a lot more drama in addiction than recovery.
"We weren't looking to cure the guy right off the bat," Leary said. "He was in denial, man, and even when he wasn't in denial, he wanted to keep drinking because he couldn't do it otherwise."
At times, watching Tommy self-destruct has been exhausting. As much as the 10th anniversary of the attacks seems like a fitting place to end the show, the ratings also indicate it's time to leave. This season, "Rescue Me" is averaging 1.8 million viewers, an 11% drop from last season and a 40% drop from its Season 3 peak of 3.04 million viewers.
Tolan and Leary reveled in their characters' need and desire for a street fight. Political correctness was often set ablaze, and no group escaped having an epithet or two hurled its way.
When the members of 62 Truck weren't womanizing or acting like candidates for Alcoholics Anonymous and anger management, the firefighters were always battling — City Hall, the media, rival trucks, one another, and a rapidly changing society that increasingly viewed them as anachronisms.
"We're provocateurs, we want to mix it up," Tolan said.
One charm of "Rescue Me" was its flaws. Like a rock band that likes to jam, "Rescue Me" never felt choreographed. "Brilliant and messy," is how Landgraf described it. "Every season, there were episodes that could stand in the pantheon of great episodes produced in the history of television, and then there were some that were not."
The last episode will not shy away from the show's trademark dark humor. While there are heartbreaking moments, in the end Leary and Tolan know it was a lot more than sentiment that kept "Rescue Me" around for 93 episodes.
"This is just a piece of popular entertainment," said Tolan. "It's not going to change the world. It may make people think about the guys who died that day; that would be a good thing."