Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Rescue Me" fires up for a new season

Oh my God -- has it seriously been more than a year since FX aired an episode of its bracing comic drama "Rescue Me"?
Indeed it has. The show was absent from the airwaves all last year, due to the writers' strike. That means we've gone all this time without a glimpse of acerbic firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) and his motley crew of colleagues, friends and lovers. This made me sad. Though I wasn't a huge fan of the show's fourth season (what was up with that plot about Sheila trying to steal Tommy's wife's baby?), the show is always worth watching.
It's one of the few series to combine over-the-top comedy with harrowing drama. And it's among the few shows to directly and frankly discuss the national tragedy of 9/11 from the perspective of people whose lives were changed by attacks in a heartbreaking way.
Thus, I'm pleased to announce that "Rescue Me" is finally back for its fifth season. Yay! The season starts Tuesday at 10 p.m., and consists of a whopping 22 episodes. I've seen the first eight, and can report that, so far, it's a vast improvement on the previous season.
For one thing, we get a lot more of what the show does best: long, candid, hilarious discussions among the guys in the firehouse about everything from male performance to...well, most of the conversations revolve around male performance. But there's some other stuff thrown in there, too.
Most notably, the characters have to face their 9/11 demons again, as a French journalist (Karina Lombard) visits the house to interview the guys for a coffee table book she's writing on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. This brings out interesting layers in the guys. Tommy, predictably, gets angry and self-destructive. Resident hunk Franco (Daniel Sunjata), less predictably, reveals himself to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. And the witty, lovelorn Lou (John Scurti) digs out his old poems in a clumsy attempt to seduce the attractive writer.
It's all funny, sad, and perfectly appropriate to this show and these characters.
In fact, the character arcs seem a bit clearer this season, too. Too often, the show has taken its characters on weird trajectories that don't suit them (remember Mikey the Probie's stint as a psycho stalker in season two? Unsettling). But, this season, everyone kind of behaves as they should. That's not to say the characters are flat and predictable. In fact, many of them develop some interesting wrinkles.
For instance, the house moron Sean (Steven Pasquale) confronts a major challenge in some later episodes that brings out welcome new layers in the character.
But the most interesting stuff, surprisingly, involves the show's female characters, which have long been its weak link. Too often, the women are either sex objects or shrill nags. The show's one layered female character, a firefighter played by Diane Farr, left in season two, and there's been a gap ever since.
Tommy's psycho on-again-off-again lover Sheila (Callie Thorne), the widow of Tommy's best friend Jimmy, started off as an interesting, believable character but eventually went over the top and became a rage-filled shrew. This season she finally goes into therapy and, though this seems like a joke at first, it leads Sheila to actually learn things about herself and her relationship with Tommy. Thorne, an excellent actress who has always transcended her material, is wonderful in the scenes when she finally realizes where all this rage comes from.
The show also does much better by Tommy's ex-wife Janet (Andrea Roth) this season. In fact, Roth (who, like Thorne, always operates at a level above what she's given) gets her best showcase to date in an episode in which she and Tommy go to visit their younger daughter at boarding school.
As it does every season, "Rescue Me" has scored some impressive guest stars this season, including Maura Tierney, who will show up later in the season (she wasn't in any of the episodes I saw). But the true revelation of the season is TV icon Michael J. Fox, who takes on an image-shattering role as Janet's boozing, angry self-destructive boyfriend, Dwight. Due to his brave, public battle with Parkinson's, Fox has become a beloved figure. As a sort of Tommy-on-crack, he tosses all that aside and reminds us that before he was noble and admirable, he was just really, really funny.
It's good to have "Rescue Me" back. And, if the rest of the season lives up these early episode, this year could be the series' best. Let's hope so.
"Rescue Me" airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX

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