Sony // 2005 // 574 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 7th, 2006
Sometimes you have to play with fire.
One of the blackest comedies on television today, Rescue Me's sense of humor is a make-or-break affair: either you find it hilarious or you resent the hell out of it. It has a blithe combination of laconic wit and destitute realism, and hits below the belt as often as it tickles the funny bone.
Our review of Rescue Me: Season One by Judge Joel Pearce was mostly positive, but he had mixed feelings about the show's writing consistency. This is less of an issue in Season Two, as the show has had a bit of opportunity to stretch its writing legs and flesh out its characters, coming out strong during its sophomore season.
"I told her the truth."
"Oh, okay. The truth. Would this be the real truth, or the 'Tommy Gavin reasonable facsimile sort of in the ballpark maybe a few important details left out' truth?"
Tommy Gavin (Dennis Leary, The Job) has been having a rough time of late. A wise-talking, sardonic New York City firefighter, he drinks too much, neglects his family, and risks his life on the job every day. He also sees ghosts -- like the ghost of his dead cousin, who died during the events of September 11th and has become rather vengeful after seeing Tommy shack up with his widow.
After Tommy's ex-wife sells his house out from underneath him, takes the kids, and skips town, his alcoholism gets the best of him and he's demoted to a Staten Island firehouse for injuring a teammate. Wallowing in self-pity for a few months, Tommy is written off by his friends as a lost cause. When Tommy starts hallucinating seeing Jesus on the cross every time he picks up a drink, it occurs to him that he may have hit rock bottom.
Meanwhile, back at Truck Company 62, Captain Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee, Backdraft) struggles with his wife's mental illness and his firefighter son's homosexuality, while Lou (John Scurti, Mona Lisa Smile) cannot believe his luck when a beautiful young woman falls for his advances. Franco (Daniel Sunjata) and Laura (Diane Farr, The Job) go against their better judgment and start up a relationship outside of work, while Sean (Steven Pasquale) tries to console Mike (Mike Lombardi) after he gets dumped by his girlfriend.
All 13 episodes from Season Two are included on Rescue Me: The Complete Second Season:
Watching Rescue Me is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can see the elaborate black comedy punch lines lumbering down the tracks a mile away, but try as you might, you cannot take your eyes away from the spectacle. In many senses, the show shares a lot in common with Leary and Tolan's first collaborative effort, the hilarious but ill-fated police comedy (see The Job: The Complete Series) in camera style, cast and sarcasm. Leary's character of Tommy Gavin has numerous parallels between his police counterpart, Mike McNeil: out-of-control substance abuse problems, cantankerousness and surliness, a dysfunctional marriage, and a certain moral flexibility that lands him in social debacles of biblical proportions.
Built from the shattered framework of the World Trade Center after September 11th , Rescue Me lives, breathes, and uniquely personifies all things New York. The lingering after-effects of the tragic events still resonate deep within the firefighters, men and women who on a good day are emotionally bankrupt and uncommunicative. The irony, of course, is that these are exactly the people who desperately need to be rescued (in a sense) from their own demons, but are utterly incapable of reaching out to each other for support. Unfortunately, after four years, the rest of the city is getting on with its collective lives, leaving such individuals behind. The transition is difficult on Tommy in particular, who had become used to -- even dependent -- on a certain level of cultural slack being cut his way to excuse his bad behaviors. His drinking, his womanizing, his failed marriage, and his ghostly visits could all be easily blamed on 9/11, but once the excuse starts losing steam, Tommy has nobody to blame but himself.
If Season One of Rescue Me was an examination into a life being ruined, Season Two is rock bottom with nowhere to go but up. Accountable for their own lives, their own actions, and their own terribly destructive personal lives for the first time, they are no longer able to hide behind the protective shield of the events of 9/11 to excuse all of their failed marriages, their womanizing, and their alcoholism. As always, Tommy is the one bringing up the rear in terms of getting his life together. Ironically, when Tommy does get his act together, he does it with such terrifying resolve that his behavior as a reformed, well-mannered citizen is actually more frightening than his drunken, abusive persona. Change, you see, is a complicated thing.
As in many cable dramas, the cast of Rescue Me spend perplexingly little time actually performing their primary job function and more time doing everything but. Entire episodes go by without the characters even stepping into their firefighting gear. Surprisingly, this does the show more good than harm, as the extra time is spent fleshing out and developing numerous subplots and character developments. Unfortunately -- and like many cable dramas -- Rescue Me also spends far too much time being needlessly cruel and vindictive to its characters. The statistical probability of a small group of people suffering such a high amount of personal injury, emotional trauma, violence, happenstance, and tragedy in their lives is staggeringly suspicious. Whenever characters get their act together, even slightly, the wrecking ball of fate comes in to knock things back down again. Fortunately for us, most of the time, it's funny as hell.
Leary's angst-filled rants and monologues drive much of the comedy on the show, but the excellent supplementary cast performances make the show solid. Never have I laughed harder than the FDNY crew attending a "workplace tolerance" training class, complaining how blacks and Jews have numerous racist names associated with them, but Puerto Ricans only have one, under the horror-stricken supervision of the motivational speaker. Even during the show's darkest moments, the writers always manage to work in excellent gags, more so if your humor strays to the darker corners of comedic appropriateness. I mean, if you can't laugh at Tommy having sex with a hallucinogenic Mary Magdalene and having Jesus chase him around with a shotgun in revenge, what can you laugh at?
It's a rhetorical question.
The show certainly does not glamorize the firefighting life. The characters are hard-drinking, wife-cheating, foul-mouthed sons of bitches, down to the very last one. But for all the dead babies, the burn units, the fallen comrades and the fading public attention, to guys like Tommy Gavin and the rest of the crew, firefighting does have an honor to it. No matter how screwed up their lives get, for at least a few hours during the day, they are doing the right thing with their life. Or at least as close to the right thing as deeply disturbed individuals like Tommy Gavin are able to approximate.
Shot on digital video, the presentation is fantastic. Detail is sharp as a tack, black levels are surprisingly solid, colors are nicely saturated, and grain levels are well controlled. During some of the firefighting sequences, the gray smoke makes a mess out of the digital image, but this can be written off as a limitation of the medium. In every other respect, this is a top-grade transfer. Likewise the audio comes in a nicely well-rounded Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentation with clear dialogue and sharp attention to environmental effects in the rear channels. The mixing is quite effective, giving a very atmospheric presentation to an entirely dialogue-driven show.
The offering of extras is average, but has its moments. The meat of the material comes in the form of deleted scenes from each episodes; the material's mostly politically incorrect, but always hilarious. Beyond this, we are thrown a few fluffy featurettes that average about ten minutes in length, as well as a gag reel and a Season Three teaser. Highlights include "Writing For The Cast," a decent little feature which features creators Leary and Tolan discussing character dialogue, as well as a Diane Farr feature discussing real-life issues with some of the real-life FDNY fireman who serve as creative advisors and background actors on the series.
Despite being a well-written, witty, and gripping show, the writing has a transparency to its plot points that borders on the inanely predictable. This was a problem in our Season One review of Rescue Me, and remains a problem in Season Two. These deux ex machina plot points are foolishly obvious to even the most casual of observer. With the exception of Tommy (because who the hell understands that guy?), the motivations of the characters and plot directions are surprisingly transparent and the show often bends the rules of realism and common sense in order to create the most painfully awkward and fitting punishments that would make Dante proud.
When we find out that Jerry has a problem accepting his gay son, of course his gay son has a big gay party at his house. When Franco finds himself falling for Laura and feels ready to commit for the first time in his life, of course Laura finds out about Franco's promiscuous side activities at that exact moment. When Tommy gets into an altercation with a parking authority officer, there are no surprises in a few episodes when they same officer gets his car towed because, hey, that's how things work around here. When Tommy finds out he has a half-brother who is a priest, of course he turns out to be the bad, molesting kind of priest. Is there any other kind? Just as Tommy gets things with his wife sorted out and everything starts to go well...well, you don't even want to know what happens to him.
I like the show, I really do, but I grow weary of shows that are unnecessarily cruel to their characters out of some perverse sense of boredom. The show cares more about karmic justice than it does about realism and it absolutely revels in punishing its characters for every minor infraction. This style of writing works spectacularly when everything clicks, but stumbles into repetition and predictability more often than not.
Hilarious, sardonic, mean-spirited, and painfully cruel all at the same time, Rescue Me may not be the best show on television, but it certainly holds its own against the finest dramas on cable television today -- doubly so if you like your humor darker than a fire-charred corpse.
Rescue Me: The Complete Second Season essentially improves on the first season in every way. An easy recommendation, this one.
All charges of arson are hereby dropped.
Review content copyright © 2006 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 574 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes
* Blooper Reel
* Deleted and Extended Scenes
* Sneak Peek of Season Three
* FX Networks Official Site