I am SO belated here, but it’s a loose end, so let’s tie it up: The news hit the trades a few weeks ago, just before the fifth season completed airing, that Rescue Me will finish for good on its final season in 2011. Which makes sense, I suppose: most of the best modern serial dramas – The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire – are able to wrap up their runs in five, six, or seven seasons. Yes, I do place Rescue Me in that storied company; while Rescue Me is more outwardly comical and even arguably more flawed than those cited examples, when this show is at its best, it is just as evocative, perceptive, and gut-wrenching as any other great work of fiction about American lives in the post-millenial era. And Rescue Me in 2009 was very often at its best – at least, it was, for a good long stretch.
The season was full of series highlights – both in terms of isolated moments and in terms of entire episodes – but those were spread out over an extra-long series order (22 episodes this time around, rather than 13) that saw a little more story-stretching, abandoned plot developments, and character inconsistency than usual. Let’s look at what sang this season, and what struck a false note (spoilers abound):
Well, there was a ton of good. I feel like I covered that pretty well in my coverage of the first half of the season. In my opinion, Season Five peaked with the brutal and affecting “Torch” – while the second half of the season had some high highs, it was never that good again, and in fact, it seemed to slowly run out of steam from there. But let’s get to that in a minute, and stick to those high highs:
Denis Leary, as main character Tommy Gavin, continues to be underrated as an actor and a writer even as he’s the only member of this immensely talented bunch to even get the littlest amount of awards attention from those dumb Emmys.
Michael J. Fox as the belligerent paraplegic Dwight – every scene this guy had was pure combative joy. The only criticism here is that he disappeared from the show in a way that called for a return (Dwight and Janet broke up off-camera), and that return, disappointingly, never came to pass.
Maura Tierney (best known for ER) arrived late in the season and made a real impact. She was abrasive, mean, maddening, likable, and yeah, pretty, and it’s really too bad she won’t be sticking around. While I think the idea of her character as the female Tommy Gavin was played a little too on-the-nose at times, there were real moments of insight between them that captured what it’s like to find those rare intersections of feeling between complete strangers in this open wound of a city.
Black Shawn (Larenz Tate) finally feels like a comfortably integrated (pardon the indelicate phrasing) member of the ensemble, as does Chief Feinberg (Jerry Adler). The whole “new character” vibe is gone and these guys are interesting and funny enough to hang with the O.G. crew. Black Shawn is one of the rare characters, like Lou, that I think works better as an ally to Tommy (as twisted as it can get) rather than a foil.
The development of the three main younger guys, Garrity, Franco, and Mike (previously best known as The Probie), particularly Steven Pasquale as Garrity and Daniel Sunjata as Franco. These two characters are the most recognizable and relatable to the younger-skewing end of the show’s fanbase (older fans can easier relate to the middle-aged characters with their varied marital problems). So personally, I’ve always responded to what’s going on with Garrity and Franco, and this season, they were pushed into some newer territory. Garrity was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, and spent most of the season battling it and dealing with his bizarre mother and obnoxious brother. Meanwhile, Franco began to indulge his 9/11 conspiracy theories, putting him at odds with his coworkers and bringing him bad press. (Mike got a band and started mentoring the new Probie; not quite as extreme but still character-building.) The downside? These two subplots seemed to fizzle out and evaporate midway through the season, with Garrity, the show’s funniest character, becoming an uncharacteristically background presence for the latter half of the season, while Franco dropped the whole Loose Change thing for boxing. Much as I love boxing, I’d rather watch it for real – it didn’t do much at all to develop Franco’s character.
More strife in the firehouse and at home. It’s always good to have strong and unusual characters in opposition to Tommy, making his life that much closer to hell. So it was fun to see the rare friction between Tommy and his best friend Lou (the pitch-perfect John Scurti). It was also cool to see Needles (Adam Ferarra) evolve into a contender for lead ball-breaker in Tommy’s life, though the scenes of Needles buddying up to Lou undermined that in a way – Needles is still a little too likable. Most unexpected was the idea of young Mike becoming a rival of Tommy’s. He learned everything he knows from Tommy so it stands to reason that he’d become more of a prick even as he becomes more of a firefighter. Of course, he’s still a moron so he can never reach major levels of threat.
Tommy’s entire extended family going back to booze. Sure, it’s a little funny that one tirade from Tommy and they all leapt off the wagon into a sea of hard liquor – all except for the most likely, his sister Maggie (Tatum O’Neal in a greatly reduced role.) But that’s what some of my writer friends call a “dick joke” – easy humor. It completely sells out a bunch of characters for an easy laugh and one eventual misstep of a cliffhanger (see below). Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke, see below) doesn’t need booze to be an entertaining, boisterous character, and Cousin Eddie (Terry Serpico) only ever came into focus as Tommy’s embattled lawyer. The worst is what’s become of Cousin Mick (Robert John Burke) – sure, his steadfast and hard-assed riding of Tommy could be one-note at times, but he provided a balance of morality that I think benefits the show. Of course, with all of them laughing it up and drinking out of control again, it brought us to…
The season-ending cliffhanger. Uncle Teddy shoots Tommy, blaming him for his wife’s fatal drunk-driving accident. Tommy is left bleeding on the floor, his friends and family helpless to save him because Teddy is holding them at gunpoint. This felt both derivative (Season Two ended with a gunshot from Uncle Teddy; Season Three ended with Tommy looking like a goner) and uncharacteristic – while Uncle Teddy has always been unbalanced and obviously prone to violence, he killed a man out of LOVE FOR TOMMY. It’s just too easy a line to draw to somehow conjure up a reason for Teddy to turn on Tommy. I didn’t believe it, and there’s no bigger Rescue Me fan than me.
While it was a compelling and organic idea to have Tommy’s nephew Damien become a firefighter with 62 Truck, the character never quite gelled with the group. In a way that’s the point, as Damien proved to be a little mama’s-boy weasel in the penultimate episode – but I don’t think that bodes well for storytelling possibilities with this character in the final season. On the one hand, I don’t think he’d play as a strong enough adversary for Tommy, and on the other, it’ll be hard for us to like him again after his behavior.
Maura Tierney’s exit from the show. It was the occasional Rescue Me plot development that did not ring true, as the ugly cock-block from Tommy’s eternal pair of exes seemed to too quickly be able to convince this savvy character to head for the hills. (See next complaint…)
Janet and Sheila, generally the two most thankless roles on the show, usually significantly more likable and ambiguously sympathetic than the impression they left by season’s end. While the actresses playing them are forceful, brave, and up for anything (particularly Callie Thorne as Sheila), the whole love triangle dynamic has gone on so long that Rescue Me is sometimes like the darkest and most perverted riff on Archie comics imaginable. You’ve got Betty and Veronica in there always, and the spin is that they’re both black-hearted hell queens. It’s not that I didn’t believe that either one of them would conspire to ruin Tommy’s new relationship; it’s that I couldn’t believe they’d TEAM UP to do it – that’s how catty those two have become. At least Andrea Roth as Janet had a nicely-played brief moment of self-loathing for how far their secret evil plan went, but unfortunately that was at the expense of Sheila.
Lou marries Candy the porno hooker. I can’t sugarcoat it – this is one of the worst things the show has ever done. Back in Season Two, the recently divorced Lou got involved with a beautiful woman who was also a prostitute. She convinced him that she wanted to get out of the business, and he gave her the money to do it. She disappeared with the money, sending Lou on a near-suicidal (but somewhat funny) downward spiral. As Lou was getting his life back on track, Candy dabbled in porn and was eventually arrested. This season, she returned, hoping to get Lou’s forgiveness, or so she said. Lou was initially furiously skeptical, but seemed to genuinely warm to her this time – which led to a seemingly-premature and ill-advised marriage. That marriage (and the best man issue) created that aforementioned rare conflict between Tommy and his normally more composed best pal. Turned out that Lou married Candy to turn the tables and rip HER off this time. Gloating as he confided that he stole all of her savings before she could do it again to him, Lou kicked back as he warned a stunned Candy to leave before the cops arrived. This, at best, is Desperate Housewives shit – it’s soap opera crap, trivial and bitch-like. At worst, it’s hateful and cruel. Worse, it sells out the show’s most likable character. Sure, Lou is a cynical, tough-hearted guy with a black sense of humor, but this move feels too vindictive for him. Encrusted by layers of sarcasm though it is, the guy still does have a heart. Also, it was a total waste of time: How many episodes did we follow this subplot for, only for such a mean-spirited payoff? How is that satisfying? Finally, it was just dumb: If Lou was planning to screw Candy over all along, then why did he allow all that conflict with Tommy to happen? Why get into it with him over the runner-up best man idea? Why endanger his closest friendship just to get the angriest revenge? This resolution really left a bad taste in my mouth after such a generally impressive Season Five – it was like finding a mouse turd on an ice cream cake.
Long story short, I’m not as broken up over the impending end of my favorite show as I might have expected. It feels like it’s time. All good things must come to the end (or else they could become not-very-good things), and Rescue Me will always exist on my well-worn DVD box sets. I have every faith in Leary, Tolan, and company to end this phenomenal, bruising series in a satisfying way – and just in case it does not conclude on an entirely satisfying note, it will most certainly be surprising. That is the astonishing track record that has been established with this thoroughly unique, never predictable series.
Here is the complete list of my previous Season Five Rescue Me articles:
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