"There ain't no medals on my chest, assholes, 'cause I ain't no hero. I'm a fireman." - Tommy Gavin
In March of 2002, after over six months of non-stop promotion for what was then called Rampart, the Fox Extended Network (FX) launched its first major original series with the jaw-droppingly powerful pilot episode of The Shield. This bold entrance into dramatic television was a resounding success, garnering praise from viewers and critics alike in addition to numerous awards, and it paved the way for a second original dramatic series just over a year later with Nip/Tuck. Once again, FX struck gold with another highly engaging hour of television, and roughly one year later, in the Summer of 2004, the former dumping ground for Fox reruns cemented itself as a true force in quality original television when it launched its third dramatic series in as many years: Rescue Me. Created by Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, the brains behind ABC's The Job, Rescue Me blends drama and comedy into a slick and engrossing tale of one New York City firehouse and the personal and professional struggles of the firefighters under its command.
Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) is a New York City firefighter with Ladder 62, a firehouse still recovering from the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. He is a senior member of the team and has been at the same house for over 20 years, and like many who serve, his life is entrenched within the service community. His brother Johnny (Dean Winters) is a New York City police detective, his cousin Mickey (Robert John Burke) is a local priest, and his cousin and best friend Jimmy (James McCaffrey) was one of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives running into the Twin Towers. He lives to be a firefighter, but the death of his best friend has had a profound impact on his life, and while so many others are struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Tommy is just plain nuts, forever haunted by the ghosts of those he could not save.
Tommy's dedication to the job is unmatched, but it has also kept him at an emotional distance from his wife Janet (Andrea Roth) who, despite her love for Tommy and their three children, can never fully identify with what he must face every day and the way his cousin's death (among others) has affected him. Also driving a wedge into their relationship is Tommy's struggle with alcoholism and a little trouble in the fidelity department. As the series begins, the two are separated, but in an interesting dramatic quirk, they live in houses that are literally next door to each other making it such that neither can do much of anything without the other knowing about it.
Including Tommy's cousin, Ladder 62 lost 4 men total in the Towers, and each of the surviving firefighters is dealing with it in his own way. Lt. Kenny "Lou" Shea (John Scurti) is another veteran on the team, but whereas Tommy's grief manifests itself through anger and reckless behavior, Lou has found solace by expressing his feelings in poetry. Unfortunately, he too is at a distance from his wife who, much like Janet, cannot really identify with the feelings of her husband. Franco Rivera (Daniel Sunjata), on the other hand, does not have such problems. As a bachelor and the resident ladies' man on the crew, he can hop from relationship to relationship without any attachments. Of course, one must wonder if this carefree lifestyle is just his way of running from his own pain.
While certainly a part of the characters' lives, the aftermath of September 11th is only one aspect of Rescue Me. Such a huge event would be impossible to ignore, but the creators have made a conscious effort not to rely too heavily on it for character development and dramatic content. For the most part, this effort is successful, although there are a couple of places in this season where they push that button one too many times. The rest of the time, however, this series focuses heavily on the not-so-glamorous aspects of being a firefighter in a major city. It's not always fighting flames and saving babies for the men of Ladder 62, and Rescue Me does an excellent job capturing some of the realistic mundanity and absurdity that comes with the profession. One day you're putting your life on the line in a terrifying battle with fire and smoke, and the next you're tearing out an upstairs window so you can remove a morbidly obese woman from her home. When necessary, the directors also do a fantastic job simulating the conditions of a real fire. Instead of bombarding the viewer with explosions and superhuman heroism, the screen is filled with smoke and darkness, and the viewer is often left as confused and disoriented as a firefighter truly is in such situations.
Another realistic aspect of the job that Rescue Me attempts to capture is the unique brand of masculine camaraderie that exists within the firehouse. It takes a special kind of person to do this job, and in order to face the danger and the fear, the department is seething with overly macho behavior. These men routinely gloat about their sexual conquests and abhor anything that may make them look like anything less than the pinnacle of masculinity. The way these men interact with one another, including their friendly but aggressive rivalry with the police department, is hilarious and makes for some of the best moments in the show. While this is certainly the type of behavior you would expect from these characters, and it is one of the better aspects of the series, it is a bit unfortunate that some of it seeps into the writing as well. When a female firefighter, Laura Miles (Diane Farr), is brought into the mix, all the men expect her to be completely useless, but the episodes try to indicate that she does have a useful purpose within the department. Sadly, the writers do not seem to have enough respect for her character to make that usefulness a particularly strong and valuable trait. In addition to this, the writing is very cynical when it comes to relationships, and just about every marriage on this show is doomed for failure. The job certainly puts strains on the home life, and Peter Tolan is quick to explain that healthy relationships do not make for particularly interesting television, but it would be nice to see that some of the couples do survive.
While much of the series does revolve around the dramatic nature of this lifestyle, Rescue Me is oftentimes as much as comedy as anything else. In this capacity, Denis Leary is perfect in the role of Tommy Gavin. Dramatically, he's very effective, but comedically, he's borderline genius, and the writing just oozes with his intense style of humor. Much of that humor comes at the expense of Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale), a nice guy who seemingly has very little going on between his ears, and Mike Silletti (Mike Lombardi), the station's "probie" and victim of numerous practical jokes and hazing rituals. Some of the plots are staggeringly hilarious, and the way each of these characters reacts to some of the more off-the-wall situations in which they find themselves is the source of some truly great entertainment.
Unfortunately, that hilarity does sometimes go a bit too far and undercuts the dramatic content. Much like FX's other hot properties, The Shield and Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me attempts to capture a level of realism that is often glossed over in other shows while at the same time ratcheting up the level of conflict through some scenarios that really stretch believability. Sometimes it makes for fantastic television, but other times, it just isn't effective. In this respect, Rescue Me falls somewhere in between its two predecessors, avoiding the somewhat soap opera-ish levels of Nip/Tuck but falling a little short of the more tightly conceived stories of The Shield. A lot that goes on in this series is pretty out there, and most of it works, but a subplot with Silletti and a man he saved from a burning building takes itself a bit too far, and the story of Tommy's Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) and his father (Charles Durning) takes "out there" to whole new levels.
Blending the comedy and the drama in a convincing manner is definitely one of the challenges this show faces, but perhaps the most difficult task is the presentation of Tommy's slow loss of mental control. While he puts up a good front, he really isn't handling things well, and he frequently finds himself conversing with the ghosts of those he could not save. When the show begins, this is just an interesting character quirk, but as time progresses, it becomes a much more significant problem and an indicator of the toll this line of work has taken on him. One of the places where Rescue Me greatly succeeds is the fine line it walks in this specific area, often leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether Tommy really is losing his mind or if this talking to the dead stuff is just a dramatic device, part of his waking imagination. In this capacity, Leary gives a very strong performance, and aside from one or two particularly dramatic scenes where he comes in a little light, it's difficult to imagine how anyone could be more perfect for the role.
In the end, the success of this series rests pretty squarely on the shoulders of Leary himself as writer, producer, and star, and on the whole he is more than up to the task. Inspired to create this show after his firefighter cousin Jerry Lucey died in a warehouse fire, his passion and understanding for the job shines through, and he has taken care to give it a very honest treatment. As he explains in the audio commentaries, nearly everything that happens in this series was taken directly from or heavily inspired by actual events that firefighters have shared with him over the years, and some of the major characters in the show are actually portrayed by current and former firefighters. That reverence comes through in the writing and adds a level of quality and authenticity to the series. Sometimes a little over the top, Rescue Me is nothing if not immensely entertaining, and even when some of the plots strain credibility, the undercurrent of humor is always there to save the day, and the dramatic struggles of these characters make for very engaging television.
Rescue Me is presented in a simple and compact package. The 13 episodes are spread across 3 discs which are kept in 2 plastic slimcases (1 in the first, 2 in the second). Both the discs themselves and the slimcases have very clear and colorful cover art, and each case contains a detailed episode listing on the back. These 2 slimcases slide into a thin cardboard box that is also adorned with some nice artwork. The only drawback to this case is a reviewer quote on the front cover, but it is small and unobtrusive. The DVD menu system is easy to navigate, with a frenetic animated main menu that shows fast-paced sequences from the series with clips of the show's title music "C'Mon C'Mon" (Von Bondies) blaring in the background.
Shot in 24p, the video presentation of Rescue Me is anamorphic widescreen, and it's outstanding. For cramming 4 and 5 episodes per disc, I was blown away with how crisp and clean everything looked on this set. The show itself makes use of many vibrant colors and captures the multicultural flare of New York City, and this DVD release maintains all of that excellently. The grain that haunts the outdoor scenes of many other releases is not to be found here, nor is the annoying edge enhancement. My only complaint, and this is a minor one, is that if you watch closely in a couple scenes, you can see slight color differences as the camera shifts from a character's primary dialogue view to an over-the-shoulder coverage shot with someone else speaking.
The audio for Rescue Me is presented in two-channel Dolby Digital Surround. While this is the type of series that might benefit from a 5.1 mix, there's nothing really lost in this presentation. The action sequences are powerful and engaging, and the dialogue is never buried underneath. Overall, it's a very clear and coherent audio mix that leaves little to be desired.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
This DVD release of Rescue Me has a pretty healthy amount of special features. First, there are two audio commentaries, both with Peter Tolan and Denis Leary, on the pilot episode "Guts" and the season finale "Sanctuary". Listening to these commentaries, it's immediately clear why they wanted to make this show and the level of passion they have for getting it as right as possible. The two of them talk non-stop about nearly every aspect of production, and they provide a great amount of detail on how the show was cast and produced. Both of these commentaries are more than worth listening to at least once.
The first disc also contains 4 featurettes, each one running roughly 15 minutes in length. Like many of these DVD featurettes, they really could all be combined into one hour-long piece, but the division of material is appropriate here, and there's a "Play All" feature that makes it easy to watch. "How it All Began" is a dialogue with Tolan and Leary as they talk about the process that lead to the show's creation. When Leary originally came up with the idea, both of them were busy with The Job, so it took some time for all the pieces to come together and get the show off the ground. "Authenticity" brings more of the producers into the mix and discusses how they went about capturing the realism of a firefighter's daily job and how they tried to create realistic fire sequences for the show.
"The Cast" predictably covers how they went about casting many of the parts and contains clips from interviews with members of the cast and how they feel about their particular characters. It is always interesting to hear an actor give his perspective on a character, particularly after you've watched that character for a season and have your own feelings about him, and this featurette certainly does not disappoint. It's not just an explanation of the characters but some insight into the process as well. Finally, "The Look" is a discussion with the producers on how the series is filmed, what their shooting schedule is like, how locations are scouted, and some of the unique challenges of shooting in 24p. Each of these 4 featurettes is both interesting and entertaining, and they make an excellent inclusion on the set.
On the first disc, there is also a 6:30 minute "Gag Reel" that is as hilarious as one would expect from this group. Finally on this first disc, there is a 4-minute preview for the second season titled "Sneak Peak at Season 2" and a curiously useless minute-long piece called "All New Season on FX!" The former is a detailed series of clips that give some insight into what will happen in the upcoming season, and the latter is just a short jumbled mess of clips from this first season as a teaser of sorts for the second.
The final bonus feature appears on the second disc and is about 7:30 minutes of deleted scenes. This material proves to be really interesting as it implicitly leads to some understanding of how the show evolved. Many of the delete scenes feature much more interaction between Tommy and those who haunt him, and while they are decent scenes, the show definitely benefits from trimming them down considerably. Two of the other deleted scenes are interesting as well as they're essentially alternate versions of heated confrontations that made the final product. One of the deleted versions is decidedly less aggressive than the final product, and the other is significantly more violent. The only disappointment is that there isn't an audio commentary to explain the creative reasons leading to these decisions, but they're very interesting inclusions nonetheless.
Rescue Me is the latest in FX's growing list of dynamic and engaging character dramas. Focusing on the realistic elements of a firefighter's lifestyle, from the mundane to the absurd from the heroic to the embarrassing, Rescue Me is an energetic and highly entertaining creation that works on both comedic and dramatic levels. The cast is outstanding, the stories are intriguing, and it keeps the viewer laughing while on the edge of his seat for 13 solid episodes. While it pushes the limits of credulity a bit too far at times, it never fails to entertain, and with a beautiful DVD presentation with numerous worthwhile bonus features at a very reasonable price, I Highly Recommend this set.