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When Rescue Me started on FX in the summer of 2004, it was not only a topically bold take on post-9/11 firefighters and the notion of what a hero is, but the series was also a fearless combination of clashing tones, a bold experiment in heartfelt drama and alpha male humor.
Unfortunately, those clashing tones were so disparate and unmanageable that you knew one day all the plate spinning that creators Denis Leary and Peter Tolan were doing would come crashing down. A pretty good guess as to when that happened was Season 4, with a little generosity tossed in.
Season 7 ended on Wednesday, Sept. 7, four days shy of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and tragedy that took so many civilians and hundreds of firefighters. The heroic stories of the latter group came to symbolize and humanize the horror – a group of people who went in to save the lives that were being taken by others. It’s the backbone, essentially, of what Rescue Me was all about.
That’s why the ending of the series was ultimately disappointing. It long ago dropped the emphasis on post-9/11 heroism and the conflicts it presented to those who were still living and, in particular, those firefighters who were not directly involved. Rescue Me was more a series about firefighters than it was a series about 9/11, but given the magnitude of the series finale and how it related to the event, you wouldn’t be wrong in wishing that better connections were made.
And that’s really the rub here – Rescue Me as a drama had lost much of its relevance years ago and had, for the most part, leapt off the tracks as it tried to cover serious topics while wallowing in absurdist humor. That’s a ridiculously difficult balancing act to maintain and, despite the vast talents of Leary and Tolan, Rescue Me simply stopped being very good in Season 4 and never regained its status. So coming back to it for the final few episodes – and the all-important series finale, “Ashes” – had a lot more to do with its association with 9/11 than celebrating the triumphant end of a respected TV drama.
The elements in place in “Ashes” mirrored in some detail the simplest storyline of the Sept. 11 attacks – firefighters put the safety of others above their own and in so doing lost a beloved member (in this case Lou, played superbly all through the run by John Scurti). Despite some well-framed shots of the rebuilding efforts at the former World Trade Center, Rescue Me chose to most emphatically acknowledge that time in the final moments when firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary) tells a group of fresh probies what it really means to be a member of FDNY – as a specially lit sign with the names of all the firefighters lost on Sept. 11 was prominently displayed behind him and he talked about all those close to him who have died through the years. The point was that being a firefighter is a calling, not a job.
It was a superb scene that recalled the pilot to the series in a satisfying fashion, and yet served as a reminder that the 9/11 thread had been long lost on Rescue Me and coming back to the show for some kind of closure on that issue was too much to ask.
If anything, the purpose best served by “Ashes” and the closing out of Rescue Me is to reaffirm precisely how difficult it is to maintain greatness in a television series. Fans who had given up on the show and then returned for either this last (typically uneven) season or just the last few episodes were given a bittersweet lesson in art maintenance.
Rescue Me was indeed once a great series. And even if it faltered like so many others the longer it was on, the one thing you can’t take away from it was the audacious ambition of those clashing tones mentioned above. It’s hard enough to make a drama, or a comedy, but mash the two together and throw in symbolism (Sept. 11, heroism) and the existential tragic faults of the lead character (alcoholism, misanthropy, etc.) and you’re just begging for failure. Maintaining those heights is an impossible task. But when Rescue Me was at its best, arguably, in those first three seasons, the real brilliance rested in the heights it tried to soar to, fearlessly.
As it ended on Wednesday night, however, it was less a metaphor about 9/11 than how little forgiveness there is in the modern day world of television and how hard-earned loyalty can evaporate.
The essential ingredient that separates film from television is the latter’s ability to be a living, breathing story – a character study not bound by a mere two hours or the largesse of a movie studio, but fueled by writers (and actors, directors and below-the-line professionals, etc.) who are all dedicated to creating and sustaining a fictional world where viewers want to visit each week for years on end.
But that “years on end” part is the prickly glitch. You can’t mess up a great movie by ending at two hours (unless you opt for that ill-advised sequel), but you can squander years of excellent work and hours of magnificent television by losing your creative touch or staying around too long. The minuses of the later work takes away from the pluses of the early years.
The final episode of Rescue Me proved all of that definitively, if it hadn’t already several seasons prior. There was great writing – Lou’s dream sequence eulogy, for one. There was pitch-perfect humor that leavened the seriousness – the scene were Lou’s ashes explode everywhere in the truck (a “Loumageddon,” as Leary’s character says). But so much of the rest of it didn’t work – apart from really tying back into 9/11. There were too many dream sequences and dodges (a real crutch of the series). There were diversions that weren’t all that funny (Leary’s character trying to play Mr. Mom and exploding on the playground at the PC-ness of it all). And beyond the circle of life anvil – Lou dies but Tommy and Janet’s son is born in the same episode – there was the tease about Tommy drinking again and Tommy retiring and Janet being just fine with his decision to stay on the job (even though she’d railed against it forever).
In that sense, Rescue Me went out about the same as it ever was in the last three or more seasons – flawed but fighting. Yet in the end, without coming full circle in a satisfying way on the 9/11 ties, Rescue Me merely fell short in both its relevance and its quality. That’s what happens sometimes when you reach for it all.
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