Rescue Me is my favorite show on TV. True, I don’t get the chance to watch much television regularly these days. Before you decide whether or not you care about what I have to say about TV, here’s a rundown of my recent favorites: I loved The Sopranos and The Shield and Chappelle’s Show and The Wire and Lucky Louie until they ended. I still watch The Office and 30 Rock every week, and I saw every episode of Lost before this season. Most recently, I thought that Eastbound & Down was fucking fantastic. But otherwise, that’s it. All of this (full disclosure) excludes the shows I’ve worked on, and also the shows I loved when I was younger.
So now depending on whether you like my tastes, you can take my opinion with a grain of salt, or two of pepper. I don’t favor the phrase “best show on TV” because that designation holds no water for me. Too subjective. To take a couple examples at random: 24 could be the “best show on TV” but I’ll never know. I’m a commitment-phobe and I’m never going to sign up for 24 episodes per season when it’s spelled out so specifically in the title. American Idol could be the “best show on TV,” but I like music too much to bother with that bullshit. The term “best” is meaningless in a spectator’s arena where personal taste is all that counts. If you trust a person’s opinion, you can take their favorites as a recommendation for yourself.
So now, about my own personal favorite: as I’ve written in this space once before, I love Rescue Me more than I love most movies. And that’s more than I love most people, so that’s saying plenty about love. And about me.
I guess that makes sense. We connect most closely to the works of art in which we recognize ourselves, and I find Rescue Me to be the most generally humanist and specifically relatable-to-me pop culture achievement that I have stumbled across in a long time. It’s also consistently well-written and occasionally flawed and beautifully-acted and incredibly funny and often very sad, and usually all of those at the same time. And it’s probably got my favorite soundtrack of any show ever made, due to its heavy leanings on the songs of one Greg Dulli, of The Afghan Whigs and The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins. Not music for everybody – like the show it’s featured on, it can be harsh and dark and pretty like 4am can be – but it works for me. I will always be thankful to Denis Leary and Peter Tolan and their cast and crew for putting together a thing that speaks to me so directly.
But enough of all that flowery bullshit – I’m writing this to convince more people to watch this show, as many as possible, because selfishly, I want at least a sixth season.
So the following is a Rescue Me user’s guide for new viewers, as succinct as can be managed. Based off of the first episode of the new season, here is everything you need to know about the cast of characters:
Number One On The Call-Sheet:
Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) – A belligerent New York firefighter and recovering alcoholic who comes from an Irish family of fellow firefighters and alcoholics. Tommy is jealous and petty, violent and sarcastic, a womanizer and a brawler and usually a pretty mean guy. In his family though, he’s considered the sensitive one.
Lt. Kenny “Lou” Shea (John Scurti) – Hands down, the show’s most quotable character. Lou is Tommy’s best friend at the firehouse. He was married until his affair (it was only when he found out that his wife was having one too that they got divorced.) Since then, he’s been mixed up with a thieving pornstar and a horny nun. Now he’s back to being the crew’s rock. Lou is a relentless ball-buster, which is good, because his co-workers give him constant ammunition.
Franco (Daniel Sunjata) – He’s been referred to as the sorcerer’s apprentice to Tommy Gavin in the pussy department, but Franco has probably surpassed his mentor in that respect. There’s more to the character than that – I like Franco because he’s a guy you could otherwise hate, only he’s so down-to-earth and matter of fact about who he is, just a good-looking dude with a good line who’s got a great job to get girls with, that he’s one of the more clever and likable guys in the crew. He’s got a daughter somewhere, but that storyline appears to be done.
Garrity (Steven Pasquale) – This is just such a virtuoso dumbass performance; I still wonder why Pasquale hasn’t become a bigger star, but I guess if that takes him away from this show, then I don’t want it yet. Garrity is the quintessential lovable idiot, who achieved his moronic masterstroke by hooking up with Tommy Gavin’s sister Maggie, which is the stupidest thing a Rescue Me character could ever do, for two reasons = Both Tommy and Maggie are incredibly scary. Garrity broke up with Maggie though, so astoundingly, he’s not the dumbest guy in the group.
Mike (Mike Lombardi) – The former probie, now a full-fledged firefighter, makes Garrity look like Stephen Hawking. He’s naive and trusting and easily taken advantage of. Mike also doesn’t seem to be able to figure out whether or not he’s gay, which has taken him on some strange adventures in sexuality. New viewers should get very excited about the plotline about Mike investing his inheritance in a bar alongside the other guys – the Franco/Garrity/Probie axis is always good times. You know at trio of guys like this. You might be part of a trio of guys like this. I know I am.
Black Shawn (Larenz Tate) – Okay, he’s called Black Shawn because he came in new and the firehouse already had a Sean (Garrity). The guys were going to make Garrity change his name, but they cut him a break. If you’re offended by racist ribbing, this isn’t your show. The firehouse is located in
Chief Feinberg – Hey look, it’s Hesh from The Sopranos! Chief Feinberg is one of two new guys who came in after the departed Chief Jerry Reilly. He’s Jewish and he has a huge dick so the guys have a lot of fun joking around him about that. Feinberg has a legitimate axe to grind with Tommy, who is great at his job but brings a truckload of baggage, so that’s why you’ll see the two having friction at the start of Season Five. Why Feinberg is pulling that weird gay shit remains to be seen, but will likely pay off funny.
“Needles” Nelson (Adam Ferarra) – He’s the sarcastic guy with the DeNiro cheek who was calling the shots outside the fireworks fire in the season premiere. Needles is the field replacement for the departed Jerry Reilly – I like the guy, he gets a lot of great lines and delivers them like an ace, but I’m one of those fans who loved Jerry, so I haven’t quite warmed to the character yet.
Chief Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee) – See Seasons 1 through 4 to learn why and how Jerry is now departed. This is one [controversial] spoiler I won’t spill.
Janet Gavin (Andrea Roth) – Probably the most unfairly maligned character of all the bravely unlikable characters on the show. I get it, but it’s not really fair. From the man’s perspective, yes, Tommy’s ex has been horrible to him, having hooked up with a long line of douchebags and shitheads while trying to keep his kids away from him. But the fact is, Tommy has put her through the same level of torment, and they probably deserve each other. These two have broken up and gotten back together as many times as 62 Truck has put out warehouse fires. This show really is at heart a soap opera, written for men by men, and probably none of us will ever admit that reality.
Colleen Gavin – Tommy’s oldest daughter, who got the hell out of the house once she was of legal age. She seems to hate her dad but is canny enough to keep him on the string so he’ll cover the bills. Like her mom, she’s got unfortunate taste in guys. Most recently, she’s taken up with Black Shawn, which isn’t going to end well for anybody.
Katy Gavin – Tommy has another daughter, who’s in some ways the saddest character of all, but she wasn’t in last night’s episode and I’m already throwing a lot of characters at you, so let’s get to Katy when she shows up again.
Wyatt Gavin –The series took a weird but justifiable turn last season when Janet had another kid. There was a question whether the baby eventually named Wyatt was the product of Janet’s relationship with Tommy himself or with Tommy’s brother Johnny, a question which seems to have been answered in the latter alternative.
Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) – Definitely one of the more broadly comic characters on the show. Uncle Teddy is an outgoing, barely sane, anti-authority figure who fought fires with Tommy’s dad way deep in the show’s history. Uncle Teddy spent the last couple seasons in prison for shooting and killing a drunk driver, but was revered as a Bernie Goetz style hero for that act of vengeance and eventually got out.
Maggie Gavin (Tatum O’Neal) – The one person Tommy Gavin appears to be scared of. Maggie is one of the two ladies that Tommy was watching the home movies with in last night’s episode. (The other is Uncle Teddy’s wife, who he met when she wrote fan letters to him in prison.) Maggie had a much bigger role in the last couple seasons – she’s a real hot mess of Courtney Love proportions, but now that she and Garrity are broken up it remains to be seen what her role will be.
Cousin Mick (Robert John Burke) – Tommy’s cousin, priest, and AA sponsor. Mickey is a real steadfast, hardassed presence in Tommy’s life, so I have to say, what he does in the Season Five premiere strikes me as somewhat questionable. It’s explainable in character, but still feels out of character to me. I think it’s more of a storytelling device (a.k.a. clear foreshadowing) than a consistency, but we’ll see where it goes.
Cousin Eddie (Terry Serpico) – He was the guy on the couch who kind of looks the way Anthony Michael Hall looks now. Cousin Eddie is a lawyer who is probably kept in business mostly by all the times he has had to bail Tommy out.
It’s hard to talk about Rescue Me’s tapestry of events without referencing potential spoilers. More than anything, it’s a show about loss. Tommy Gavin is constantly losing the people he loves (and hates) the most, so major deaths are a fairly regular occurrence. Tommy is not a particularly stable guy, though. So many of his lost loved ones, along with those nameless lives lost in the course of duty, have appeared to him during the show’s run and probably will again.
Jimmy Keefe (James McCaffrey) – Tommy’s cousin and best friend and crewmate who died at the
Connor Gavin – Tommy’s inexplicably red-headed son (that family is blonder than Pam Anderson) who was SPOILER ALERT killed by a drunk driver at the end of Season Two and avenged by Uncle Teddy. Connor has since appeared in cameo as one of the ghosts who haunts Tommy.
Johnny Gavin (Dean Winters) – Tommy’s brother and arch-enemy. Johnny was a notoriously humorless cop who was pretty much Clint Eastwood. (Dean Winters, previously of Oz, was so genius in this role. He’s on 30 Rock now as Tina Fey’s cell-phone-salesman boyfriend.) Johnny had a long-term affair with Janet, which Tommy eventually found out about and pummeled him over. Before they could reconcile, Johnny was killed on the job.
Michael Gavin (Charles Durning) – Tommy’s dad was such a scoundrel that he was Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie. I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but the reason Tommy is so pissed in 5.1 is because his dad kicked the bucket while the two of them were at a minor league baseball game in the last scene of Season 4. They had a combative relationship and Tommy feels unresolved about it all.
The Ex From Hell:
Sheila Keefe (Callie Thorne) – If I can hyperbolize just this once, here is one of the great characters in the history of the medium. Sheila is such a brilliantly written creation, because even when Sheila acts wildly out of character, it’s totally in character. Like it or not, every guy knows a girl like this, because every guy believes that almost every girl IS like this, at least occasionally. Now don’t take that the wrong way: Speaking specifically, I am happy to say that I don’t know a single woman who is like Sheila. Sheila is jealous and scheming and manipulative and bi-polar and scary and dangerous. So I certainly don’t look at her as in any way representative of women, but there is a lot of truth to viewing her as representative of men’s perception of women. What I mean is, sometimes guys look at girls and just don’t understand what’s going on between the ears. Women are wonderful and beautiful and loving and strong, amazingly strong, but women are also frequently unpredictable to us. Sometimes they just do or say shit that guys couldn’t possibly understand. Whether it’s hormones or biology or all the crap us idiot guys put you ladies through on the regular, I can’t say. But I certainly can’t think of a character that better represents the disconnect and the fear that happens between men and women than Sheila does. For the record, Callie Thorne is completely underrated for this performance and she deserves any award she wants to have.
(See, with a write-up like that, now you HAVE to check out the show to see what I’m on about. And if you disagree with what I wrote, well, I’ll just have to hear about it then.)
A Couple Other Characters:
Rescue Me is very generous with interesting roles for little-known actors, but in the last couple of seasons, more and more high-profile folks have passed through. In the Season Five premiere, there were two:
Gina Gershon – You’ll recognize the star of Showgirls and other films in the premiere episode as Tommy’s sex friend. I don’t remember her character’s name, and frankly, it probably doesn’t matter. Tommy’s flings don’t last very long and no woman will be more important to the show than the two-headed monster, Janet and Sheila. That’s not to take away from Gina Gershon – she plays a good sarcastic match for Tommy, and this continues her current streak of cool cameos on cool shows, after her recent cameo in Eastbound & Down.
Dwight (Michael J. Fox) – One of the most awesome things about the Season Five premiere was the brief introduction of Janet’s new boyfriend Dwight, who seems to be an asshole, and not just because he won’t stand up to meet Tommy. Michael J. Fox has to be one of the most beloved people in
Episode 5.1 Blue-Ribbon Quote:
This week it’s a toss-up:
“We’re all Bootsy.” – Tommy Gavin. [In context, brilliant.]
“The next ass I tap is the ass I marry.” – Black Shawn.
NEXT WEEK: A much, much shorter write-up, as we see where this promising return-to-form first episode is going to take us this season.
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