There's a moment in the second episode of the new season of "Rescue Me" that probably does the best of any to explain the show's aesthetic and emotional core: Lt. Kenny "Lou" Shea (John Scurti), talking to an interviewer about his experiences on 9/11, breaks down and weeps when he confesses the attacks left him drained of emotion. It's a heartbreaking moment that gets at a piece of the sense of loss firefighters and others still feel, and right as Lou starts bawling into his salad, the action cuts to a stripclub, where Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) and his cousin Mickey (Robert John Burke) are trying to cheer up Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke) over the death of his brother, Tommy's father.

The point is that the series never stays in one place for long, and the rapid change serves to puncture the seriousness of the first scene while reinforcing the fact that creators Leary and Peter Tolan are determined to mix their sentiment with a kind of jagged-edged honesty. After more than a year away, "Rescue Me" is still full of strong writing and skillful acting, but it's the show's mix of redemption and ruin that genuinely sets it apart from the pack.

Season 5 opens with Tommy dealing with the loss of a father he hated and staring down potential expulsion from the firehouse after being declared Section Eight (certifiably nuts) by Chief Feinberg (Jerry Adler). Tommy is still basically a proxy for the stage persona Leary built during years of stand-up: arrogant, opinionated, apolitical and uncompromising. Leary is fantastic as a man who isn't afraid to say he loves his friends in one breath and insult them in the next, and even though he puts his foot in his mouth with astonishing regularity, he maintains a perverse honor born of his attempts to stave off his self-destruction.

But the real strength of the series is that it revolves around Tommy without ever ceding ground to him. It's a true ensemble drama, one that finds as many worthy plot lines in the supporting characters as it does in the main stories. The dimwitted Garrity (Steven Pasquale), the somehow even dimmer Silletti (Michael Lombardi) and the always-horny Franco (Daniel Sunjata) remain reliable sources of comic relief, and writers Evan Reilly, Tolan and Leary absolutely nail the rhythm of their camaraderie.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lou, who remains the series' soul and beating heart. Scurti is never less than wonderful whether he's playing comedy or pathos, and he's more graceful than anyone else in the cast at sliding between the two. He generates a compassion that extends to the rest of the players. Tommy might be the one trying to atone for his sins, but Lou might actually get there. "Rescue Me" has room for both. (partialdiff)