Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Rescue Me Returns Tonight, C'mon, C'mon

Rescue Me blew me away in its first season on FX last year. It’s one of those shows that comes out of left field and makes you rethink the notion of television as a wasteland of Jerry Springer freak showery and Kelly Ripa vapidry.

Rescue Me has the look and feel of a Martin Scorsese film – dark, atmospheric, surprisingly and explosively funny— and builds off the tone of such gangster stories as Goodfellas and, perhaps more importantly, The Sopranos. Whereas The Sopranos looks at the decaying of American culture through the scope of a New Jersey mob family, Rescue Me aims to pull off an extremely difficult feat: post-9/11 New York as seen through the eyes of people – New York firefighters – who were there and lost the most on that horrific day.

So how does a story that begins at this darkest of places manage to be hilarious and compelling and engaging all at once? It starts with the characters and the writing, all of which center around the astonishingly good Denis Leary as Tommy Gavin. Leary, who is also the Executive Producer and a writer on the show, perfectly encapsulates the burned out, bleary eyed New Yorker who can never quite manage to get his shit together. Tommy’s bright, charming, and cunningly manipulative personality seems to work toward the one goal of letting no one see how much he’s crumbling within. Gavin is an alcoholic firefighter in the midst of losing his family and his mind. Yet Leary pulls off making Gavin a likeable and engaging leading man, the combination of which is the stuff of greatness.

That’s where the sharp edge of humor comes from: jokes mask pain in real life, and no where on television is this captured better than on Rescue Me. The bonus is that on top of this dark backdrop, the audience is treated to some of the funniest and best “guy banter” you’ll see anywhere, all of it smacking of a truly New York aesthetic.

The supporting cast is equally great. Jack McGee, as Chief Jerry Reilly, is so good that it’s hard to believe that he’s an actor playing a fire chief. If you’re looking for New York street cred, this guy embodies it. The end of the first season ended on a tragic note for Reilly (and a decidedly and deeply dark note overall) as his wife sunk into the fog of Alzheimer’s, so I’m very eager to see where his storyline will go as the new season debuts.

According to Rescue Me’s official website, John Scurti, who plays Lou, Kenny Shea, is from Northport, on Long Island, New York’s North Shore. My family and I hail from East Northport, the next town over (to the South, actually), so I can say that Scurti brings a local authenticity to a character that is gruff on the outside, blue collar, and guarded about displaying any activity that might be seen as feminine or soft (Lou writes poetry in attempt to express his feelings).

While much of the show deals with Tommy’s mid-life breakdown (he hallucinates often, seeing his dead cousin, the man who was his best friend and whose wife – Sheila Keefe, wonderfully portrayed by Callie Thorne – he’s having a semi-clandestine affair with) and the struggle to fight fires and keep it together, there’s always a bizarre and quirky quality at play that again reminds me of The Sopranos and perhaps will help to eventually place Rescue Men at the very top of television shows produced this decade. A quick example involves John Gavin, Sr. (played by the great Charles Durning, who is still at the top of his game as a boozed out curmudgeon), Tommy’s father, Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke), and a gay African American midget with a penchant for predicting winning horses at the track by looking ‘em straight in the eye.

The theme song of Rescue Me, the edgy garage-rocker “C’mon, C’mon,” by The Von Bondies, is perfect, crying its plea over grainy, indie shots of a fire truck sliding through purest New York.

Rescue Me, Season Two, premieres tonight at 10:00 on FX.

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