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'RESCUE ME' Saving viewers from boring TV



Published: Sat, June 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The show is a realistic glimpse at firefighter life, Denis Leary says.

By DUSTY SAUNDERS

SCRIPPS HOWARD

In Tuesday night's seasonal premiere of "Rescue Me," despondent fireman Tommy Gavin douses himself with a full bottle of vodka and ignites a cigarette lighter.

He stares at the lighted flame, obviously thinking the unthinkable.

In the season's second hour, Gavin works a scam to get away briefly from the fire station. In a rollicking scene, he pretends he's a talented singer so he can join a traveling firemen's barbershop quartet.

So what is "Rescue Me"? A drama with comedy overtones? A comedy that occasionally deals with dramatic situations? A major strength of this FX series is its ability not to be stuffed into a category. In the straitjacketed world of television, series are labeled "comedies" (most with laugh tracks) and "dramas" (pulsating music in key situations).

"Rescue Me," 10 p.m. Tuesdays, offers none of the above. And the description of a "dramedy" -- a series that tries to gently mix comedy and drama -- really doesn't apply, since "Rescue Me" grinds story-line gears several times within each hourlong episode.

"Rescue Me" revolves around the tumultuous lives of firemen in a New York firehouse (62 Truck), mixing their life-and-death heroics with an ongoing examination of their varied -- and often bizarre -- personalities.

Leary's role

The main protagonist is Gavin, portrayed with energetic gusto by Denis Leary, who, along with Peter Tolan, created the critically acclaimed series. The two also write many episodes.

Tommy Gavin is an emotional mess. His post-traumatic stress disorder due to 9/11 and his constant womanizing have added to his alcohol problem. His wife and three children have left him. But Tommy is not alone, since he's involved in a torrid affair with the widow of his cousin and best friend, who was killed in the terrorist attack.

How torrid? She's expecting Tommy's child.

For non-viewers, such scenarios sound like a depressing plot for the worst (or is it the best?) daytime soap opera. But underlying all the angst facing Tommy and fellow firefighters is a continual wave of black humor, mixed in with a compassion rarely found in a weekly series.

"Rescue Me" regularly rescues viewers from the tedium of predictable television. The irreverent, intertwining relationships provide compelling entertainment. And headlining this mix is Leary, who often looks as dissipated as Tommy Gavin acts.

Cutting edge

Judged against regular network drama, "Rescue Me" is raw stuff, both in language and sexual situations. Content-wise, the series is far removed from TV's earlier heroic-firefighter dramas, such as "Rescue 8."

Wisely, "Rescue Me" remains relevant, particularly in dealing with post-9/11 life in New York. Part of last summer's freshman season dealt with the crew of 62 Truck attempting, not too successfully, to deal with the loss of numerous firefighting companions.

But times have changed in New York. A scene in the second episode, in which Gavin clashes with a cop over a parking ticket, illustrates this. "You guys [firemen] were big studs, big heroes for about five years, but you're not anymore," the irritated cop tells Gavin.

Leary, who developed the series partly because of a strong association with firemen (a cousin was killed in a 1999 blaze in Worcester, Mass.), believes such scenes are accurate.

"After 9/11 ..., human nature put the spotlight on the firefighters," Leary says. "People's hearts from around the world went out to the firemen and less so to the cops."

Emotional competition

Leary feels there's always been an emotional battle between cops and firemen -- even between brothers. "The stuff cops use to forgive after 9/11 -- drunk driving or a drunken brawl in a bar -- that's over.

"Now cops in New York have decided, ... 'Why are they getting all this attention?' We're dealing with this in the second season."

Leary claims firefighters around the country "love the show because it's a glimpse into what it's like to be in what's considered the greatest firefighting force in the world, which is in New York."

Leary laughs when talking about how New York firemen see the show. "They think it's accurate. But some of the younger guys I know are getting worried that their wives or their girlfriends are going to believe that everything on the show is absolutely true all the time.

"Some of the older guys didn't realize how true 'Rescue Me' was going to be. It's cutting close to the bone."

Leary got the same response when he and Tolan produced "The Job," the short-lived (and entertaining) half-hour cop series on ABC. "They [policemen] said our show represented reality to a great degree."




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