I gave up on Rescue Me at the start of Season Four. The show had drifted into self-parody. Too many dream sequences, a lessened focus on fire fighting and more contrived soap opera, and so much macho b.s., I needed my own set of firefighter gear to prevent myself asphyxiating from the fumes. The show has so much aimless guy talk, it's like watching Entourage but with a cast of characters that has a real job. The latter part of that sentence makes it more interesting, but the former is not at all a compliment.
When the DVD set for Rescue Me: Season Five, Vol. 1 came up for grabs, I thought I'd give the show another try. I've always liked Denis Leary, and I enjoyed his and Peter Tolan's pre-Rescue Me series The Job, and I even enjoyed the first couple of seasons of this one off and on. Maybe the problems in Season Four were just a hiccup.
Well, yes and no, as it turns out. A lot of what bugged me about that cycle of shows is gone, but a lot of what always made the show a little dicey was still around. I think it suffers from the FX Channel disease of having too few restrictions and seeming to justify its place on cable by trying a little too hard. A little too much drinkin' and druggin', a little too much whorin', and way too much talkin' about that whorin'. The firefighter hero worship is commendable, but oddly undermined by making them all maniacs.
Rescue Me: Season Five, Vol. 1 has the first 11 episodes of a double-length season. Most of the story in these shows focuses on the usual throughline of Denis Leary's Tommy Gavin and his emotional problems. He struggles with alcoholism, bounces between his estranged wife Janet (Andrea Roth) and Sheila (Callie Thorne), the mentally unbalanced widow of his cousin. The dearly departed cousin, Jimmy (James McCaffrey), died on 9/11, and when Tommy is on the sauce, he is visited by Jimmy's ghost, amongst other dead people from his life. Jimmy has been absent thanks to Tommy being six-months sober, but when a French reporter (The L Word's Karina Lombard) starts hanging around the firehouse to interview the guys for a book about the attacks, his memory is revived in sharp relief. Tommy watches some unseen news footage and even sees Jimmy in the crowd, calling into question when and how Jimmy died that day. This, among other things, gets Tommy drinking again, and when the spooks return, they cause him to question his own actions and previously unshakable ego.
This reexamination of 9/11 makes for an interesting handful of episodes where Rescue Me takes on some true depth. Even the predictable subplot of Tommy and Lou (John Scurti) competing over the French writer is balanced out by the creative secondary story of station himbo Franco (Daniel Sunjata) being a firm believer in 9/11 conspiracy theories. His talk about the attack being an inside job dredges up questions about brotherhood and, really, the nature of the freedom the guys are committed to protect and preserve. In the same episodes, the crew goes out on jobs and their heroism is put to the test.
Another pivotal development in the show is the bar the guys buy together. It becomes the secret drinking place for Tommy when he first falls off the wagon, and it also becomes the venue for his most pronounced visions. I'm not sure how I feel about these ghost stories. They are certainly better than the underdeveloped dream sequences where Tommy and pals are in peril, only to have the danger kicked aside by Tommy springing out of bed. These visitations have a bigger payoff, and the most detailed is the near half-episode hallucination in episode 8, "Iceman." Tommy's cousin, his dead brother (Dean Winters), his father (Charles Durning), and even his lost son come to play a neo-Dickensian mind game on him. It's a little hackneyed and worn-out, but the payoff is good, resolving many of the issues of the first seven episodes of the season and putting Tommy on his new path. More devoted to his work, claiming to be in control of his demons, and also looking to a third generation of firefighters in the family when Jimmy's son Damien (Michael Zegen) joins the academy. (There are actually a lot of multi-generational story lines in Rescue Me, a lot of plots that touch on tradition and how parents and their children interact. There are narratives with both of Tommy's daughters in these shows.)
Other side plots involve various supporting characters on the show, some developed heavily, some not so much. Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) goes through a pretty good cycle dealing with kidney cancer (complete with musical number--seriously?!), while a haphazard look at Tommy's sister (Tatum O'Neal) and his uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) volunteering at V.A. hospitals goes nowhere and seems like just an occasional afterthought that is thunk up a few too many times. One of the more ballyhooed subplots of the season features guest star Michael J. Fox playing Janet's new boyfriend, a bully paraplegic extreme sports veteran. He's kind of a badass, fighting Tommy even from his wheelchair and shotgunning beers while racing down the street in his sports car. So, essentially, just like every other testosterone case on Rescue Me, except this one earned the actor an Emmy. Fox is good at it, but I don't see his work as very distinguished here or the role as anything special. In fact, the character kind of just disappears, so unless there is something more substantial in vol. 2, I don't quite get why the honors.
Beyond Fox, the cast of Rescue Me is an excellent ensemble, and after four seasons, has a remarkable rapport. Perhaps that's why the scenes of them shooting the shit get such priority, they all get along and that stuff just rolls off naturally. Though a lot of the comic relief can feel forced and overly choreographed, Steven Pasquale and Mike Lombardi are the two who really shine in terms of bringing the funny. As the two dunderheaded firefighters, they work fantastically together as well as separately, delivering blank stares and bewildered queries one after the other without the shtick ever growing stale. I question the writing occasionally, when these guys suddenly have an impressive rise in vocabulary, but such instances are easy to forgive. In fact, I'd say from a dialogue standpoint, the script team should get some credit for their balance of crude talk with actual intelligent speech. Even if I am not always impressed with what they are talking about, I am impressed with how they are talking about it.
Sheila may be my favorite character on the show. I know that's odd to say about such a manly series, but Callie Thorne keeps the part interesting and somehow manages to make Sheila sympathetic and intriguing despite the fact that she's pretty much certifiable. In a way, Sheila controls the situation the way the wife of a mafia don might, like Laura Linney at the end of Mystic River, but more sexy and convincing. She also comes off as a formidable foe for Denis Leary, whose personality is the driving force of Rescue Me. More than ever, Leary seems in character and in the moment, never once breaking off from Tommy to become Denis again.
When the budget allows, Rescue Me manages to be a good action show. The season opener with the guys in the fireworks factory, for instance, might be a little over the top and an obvious premiere gimmick, but it looks good and is exciting. Sometimes the digital fire effects, particularly when it's a person catching fire, aren't very well integrated, but that's not all that common. It also doesn't matter in the best sequences, the small scenes such as when Mike and Tommy are trapped in a basement with only a short supply of oxygen. It's times like that, the man-to-man moments of getting through a tough situation, where the show displays how smart it can be.
So, when it comes down to it, I am as conflicted about Rescue Me as ever. Season Five, Vol. 1 is definitely an improvement over Season Four--it's less meandering, not as in-your-face, and though drifting into some familiar territory, at least drifting back down to earth. It's enough of a return to form that I may return to watching the show on a regular basis again, but still not enough to make me want to keep the DVDs (if that distinction makes sense). Some might be worried about the split season set here, and whether it has a satisfying end. I'd say the last episode, "Mickey," is about on par with your average season finale. Most of the plots are put into a tidy place, a few new ones are brought in to dangle in front of us and lure us into the next round of shows. No one is hanging over a flaming pit, no big mysteries are left unsolved, so it's pretty much a complete package.
Episodes can be chosen one at a time, or there is a play-all function. (It's the same for deleted scenes.)
DVD 3 also has two featurettes: "Walking Thru Fire: Surviving Season 5" (29 minutes, 43 seconds), your standard promo reel with cast and crew interviews, and "Danny Does Danger: The Stunts of 'Rescue Me'" (7:32), which is exactly what it sounds like. Danny Aiello III is the head stunt man, and he shows us how some of the stunts were done, including the fireworks factory going up in flames in the first episode and how they protect themselves from fire. Interestingly enough, according to the making-of program, series creator Peter Tolan wasn't all that happy with season 4 either. It's not just me!
DVD 3 finishes with a bunch of trailers and previews, including a promo for Sons of Anarchy, another FX show.