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There are two general theories to watching television. There’s the Friends philosophy, where we watch to escape from our lives and into the funny fake problems of people far more beautiful than ourselves. Then there’s The Wire model, where we watch to confront an aspect of society or our own lives that is either too painful or elusive to take on in a nonfictional environment.
While both have their place in a well-balanced media diet, we tend to search out the third path between those two, the one pioneered by shows like M*A*S*H* and the Norman Lear comedies of the ’70s. It’s best exemplified in modern times by Rescue Me, the seven-season comic drama that not only was as essential a response to the collective trauma of 9/11 as anything produced in pop culture, but also showed with unflinching drama the last gasp of the modern-day alpha male in a world that really doesn’t have the patience to deal with his bullshit anymore.
Where most art stemming from tragedy deals with Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief like a journey from one station to the next, this FX show about a crew of Manhattan firefighters has the wisdom to treat them how they actually are—costumed wrestlers in a seriocomic steel cage match, each fighting desperately to get the upper hand. They fight dirty in that square circle; “acceptance” rarely has a chance.
Co-created, starring, and animated by the venomous spirit of Boston stand-up Denis Leary, Rescue Me illustrates, without apology, the often-unthinkable yet unspeakably funny cost of survival. After folks here run into burning buildings and manage to run out again, life too often becomes a toxic stew of drinking too much, gambling too much (“I’m a New York City Fireman,” says the transcendent Jack McGee’s Jerry Reilly, “every day of my life is a gamble”) and having sex with the wrong people. When none of that works for Leary’s feral Tommy, he has no choice but to turn to and lean on friends and fellow fireman living, and in the case of Jimmy, the cousin and best friend who was in one of the towers on 9/11, dead.
Yes, Tommy finds solace in and constantly argues with ghosts throughout Rescue Me—in that way they’re no different than his ex-wife, his kids, his brothers, the guys in his crew, or anyone else he happens across. Occasionally, Jesus’ stigmata might drip into Tommy’s Bailey’s Irish Creme too, and these very necessary moments of magical realism only underline the immensity of the task this show has undertaken. Rescue Me dares to confront the rage, cosmic despair, terror, hopelessness, and sick humor that has at various moments engulfed each and every one of us over the last 14 years, regardless of where we were that terrible day.
Much of the Herculean work of pulling off the show’s serpentine twists of broad comedy and profound tragedy falls on the sinewy shoulders of Leary, a man whose controversial stand-up career (especially if you’re a fan of late comedy legend Bill Hicks) has obscured his remarkable skill as a dramatic actor. Similar in a way to Jack Lemmon or Michael Keaton, Leary channels a comedian’s lightening-fast mental facility into the emotional highs and lows demanded of drama. Like any star quarterback, he owes much of his success to his offensive line, here embodied by such equally facile yet outsized character actors as McGee, John Scurti, and Lenny Clarke.
A warning regarding Rescue Me: It may not be the best thing to take in in one binge session, the way Tommy might a quart of Jameson during a dark period. Watching him stumble through the real world—the fearful way he interacts with the women in his life is especially harrowing—can be tough to take in extreme doses. The show grows increasingly melodramatic—a shocking DUI death, a murder, a suicide, a horrible death in a fire, just to name a few grislier plot twists—and Tommy, one of the most unforgivable SOBs ever unleashed on TV audiences, can be hard to put up with over extended visits. Instead, take it in two- or three-episode bursts. Use it as a way to remind yourself that remembering is not nearly as scary as you thought, and that there’s always something rewarding about traveling that third path.