Monday, June 28, 2010

Life after death: Reviewing the new season of "Rescue Me"

FX's "Rescue Me" might be the show on television most capable of driving me nuts. Maybe that's because I know how good it can be when it's firing on all cylinders. I mean, when the show -- which starts its new season Tuesday at 10 p.m. --  focuses on the relaxed, funny, often profane banter between firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) and his crew, few series are better at depicting the power of male bonding.

And when the Tommy and co. fight fires, the show escalates to a high level thriller -- mainly because we know "Rescue Me" isn't shy about killing off characters, and every fire can be a character's last.
But a lot of the other stuff drives me nuts. For instance, I've frequently spoken of my displeasure with the show's female characters, particularly Tommy's ex-wife Janet (Andrea Roth) and his batty sometimes flame Sheila (Callie Thorne). Yes, I get that Tommy has treated them terribly, and they've probably earned their bitterness. But, unlike the male characters, the women aren't portrayed as sympathetic. They're just angry and irrational. And Tommy himself so frequently engages in self-destructive behavior that it's hard to root for him. Yes, I know Tommy has serious emotional problems and his lack of self-control is realistic. It's just hard to be bombarded with it week after week.
When the new season picks up, we find Tommy in, perhaps, his darkest place to date. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that Tommy survived being gunned down by Uncle Teddy in last season's shocking finale. After all, the show's ads have already told us that Tommy lives. And that's the good news. The bad news for Tommy is that, with the exception of his crew, no one seems that happy that he survived. Janet and Sheila are, surprise, mad at him, as are his oldest daughter and all his relatives.
Tommy, meanwhile, is trying to take his near-death experience as a turning point but that, as always, proves difficult. This is dark, frustrating stuff to watch. I give the show credit for being uncompromising, but the first few new episodes are pretty unpleasant.
It's only in the third and fourth episodes, when the series occasionally shifts the focus off Tommy and on to his firefighter buddies, like Lou (John Scurti), Sean (Steven Pasquale) and Damian (Michael Zegen), that things pick up. A discussion about how the guys can improve humanity is classic "Rescue Me," as is a zany hospital heist in the fourth episode. The later episodes also showcase a hilarious cameo by the ever-reliable Peter Gallagher as a wacky priest.
"Rescue Me" is a complicated show to love. But, as long as there is enough good stuff mixed into the darkness, it's worth the effort.

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