Rescue Me -- TV Review

There's a moment in the second episode of the new season of "Rescue Me" that probably does the best of any of them 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 manages to get at just 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 strip club, 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 sloppy, jagged-edged honesty. After more than a year away, "Rescue Me" is still a compelling drama, 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 challenges his ex-wife's new boyfriend (Michael J. Fox) to a fight before learning he's a paraplegic, then tries to go through with it anyway -- 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 plotlines 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, especially in the arc that finds them buying a bar just to try and get laid. Writers Evan Reilly, Tolan and Leary absolutely nail the rhythm of the insult-based camaraderie that forms among men.

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, even to Tommy, who's as likable as an anti-hero can be even if he keeps screwing up his own life.

Tommy might be the one trying to atone for his sins, but Lou might actually get there. "Rescue Me" has room for both.

Airdate: 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 7 (FX)
Cast: Denis Leary, Michael Lombardi, Steven Pasquale, Andrea Roth, John Scurti, Daniel Sunjata, Callie Thorne, Adam Ferrara, Larenz Tate, Robert John Burke, Lenny Clarke
Production companies: Apostle, the Cloudland Co., DreamWorks Television, Sony Pictures Television
Executive producers: Denis Leary, Jim Serpico, Peter Tolan
Co-executive producers: Kerry Orent, Tom Sellitti, Leslie Tolan, Evan Reilly
Creators: Peter Tolan, Denis Leary
Writers: Evan Reilly, Peter Tolan, Denis Leary
Co-producers: Dauri Chase, Paul Anderson, Alyson Evans
Director: Peter Tolan
Director of photography: Tom Houghton
Production designer: Andrew Bernard
Costume designer: Caroline Duncan
Casting: Julie Tucker, Ross Meyerson