“Mutha,” the first episode of the final season of “Rescue Me,” offers further proof that shows tend to gain focus when they know the end is near.
I never really warmed to the series for reasons I’ll dig into in a moment. But for now let’s boil them down to 1) its vision of straight white guys as persecuted martyrs; 2) its tendency to project that persecution fantasy onto the female characters, so that they validated the guys’ perceptions of them as emasculating shrews, crazy bitches, easy lays or some combination; 3) its indiscriminate use of tragedy to make the show seem capital-I Important, and 4) the cocky badass stylings of its co-creator/cowriter/producer/lead actor Denis Leary, which often played like an edgy comedian’s daydream of movie stardom. (Tommy Gavin is an alcoholic screw-up, but dammit, he’s also the bravest firefighter alive, and no woman can resist him! Whatever, dude.)
That said, “Rescue Me” had real and valuable strengths. When it debuted in 2004, it was one of the first adult dramas to confront the psychological aftermath of 9/11 bluntly and honestly, without the cushions of genre or metaphor. And when the testosterone fog cleared (which wasn’t often) there were moments when the firefighters (and the writers) seemed to genuinely regret how “Rescue Me” diminished and caricatured its women; during such moments, the guys would knock off the Christ-on-the-cross routine, try very hard to listen to what the women were saying, and often fail miserably. (When wives and girlfriends tongue-lashed the guys for their sins, they tended to have pained, puzzled expressions, like Clint Eastwood’s foulmouthed Marine in “Heartbreak Ridge” trying to understand his ex-wife by reading Cosmopolitan.)
Last but not least, the show offered a dead-on portrait of blustery straight male friendship, with its one-upsmanship, chops-busting, frat-house pranks and stray moments of generosity and tenderness. The best of the show’s firehouse scenes reminded me of “Slap Shot” and the original movie version of “M*A*S*H.” Last night’s “Rescue Me” focused on the show’s strengths, minimized its weaknesses, and produced one of its most consistently excellent hours in a long time.
There were lapses, of course. Just as Tommy is addicted to booze, “Rescue Me” is addicted to a misperception of what artistic freedom means, equating misery, histrionics and outrageousness with hard truth. Consider that terrific early scene in the car with Tommy and Janet Gavin (Andrea Roth), who’s pregnant again following a one-night stand with her ex. I love that Tommy discovered Janet’s pregnancy notice inside “The Blame Book.” (Janet: “You were reading the blame book?” Tommy: “I thought there might be a picture of me in it.”) The now-sober Tommy seems to be experiencing a moment of clarity that’s lasted for months. For long stretches during the premiere, you got the sense that he actually cared what Janet thought and felt and needed. Even when he was misrepresenting Sheila’s inside dope on Janet’s emotional state as the result of his own research, in his heart he was being sincere.
The car scene was an example of that dynamic: Tommy was trying, really trying, to meet Janet halfway, and she was trying, too. Throughout most of their conversation they sounded not like overgrown, self-obsessed teenagers (their usual mode, and the show’s), but haggard 40-something parents who were finally starting to get a handle on their personalities and lives. When Janet says, “The only way I will have this kid is if you promise to be a normal, close-to-home dad,” something close to “normal,” and he makes that sardonic, disbelieving face, he’s not reacting in typical Tommy fashion (Isn’t that just like a woman? Trying to turn a guy into something he’s never going to be). He’s troubled by something deeper — his conviction that the world was thrown permanently out of alignment by 9/11, for firefighters and their loved ones especially, but perhaps for America as a whole. Normal disappeared, he said, after the towers fell, and Jimmy died, and “you told me to get over it and grow up. I got news for you. There’s no getting over it. Normal’s dead and buried underneath ground zero. I’m just trying to make sense of what’s left aboveground.”
It’s an expertly written, sensitively acted, subtly directed scene, right down to the way that it leaves the source of Janet’s ire undefined. (I like to think she was calling bullshit on Tommy’s blaming 9/11 for personality defects that were probably there already, and that the terrorist attacks only intensified.) But then Janet tries to drive away, and Tommy tries to stop her by climbing on the hood of her car, and suddenly we’re in a John Landis movie.
The episode’s “outrageous” climax — Tommy shooting up the bar with a shotgun as revenge for the owners’ enabling of his recovering alcoholic daughter’s relapse — is an even more extreme example of the show’s anything-for-a-gasp ethos. After that great scene in the basement — Tommy pouring himself a drink, holding it in his mouth while his ghosts egged him on, then spitting it out — the episode peaked dramatically, but it didn’t want to end with a whisper; it wanted to end with a (literal) bang. Wouldn’t one of the patrons have called the cops? Are we in reality here, or are we in TV land? “Rescue Me” has never shown much interest in answering such questions because it wants to evoke the visceral power of great drama without truly earning it.
And that’s too bad, really, because when “Rescue Me” isn’t trying too hard to be bold and unpredictable and “outrageous” — as in the first three-quarters of that car scene — it’s a tough, smart, surprising show. And at its best, “Mutha” was terrific — as tautly structured as a tight one-act play, with each scene functioning as a kind of mini-drama with its own stakes, its own arc and its own distinctive energy. It pitted strong-willed characters against each other in a series of emotional duels and gave them first-rate banter: The scene with Tommy squirming and freaking out over Janet and Sheila’s wicked, secretive laughter, and the women twisting the screws; Maura Tierney’s Kelly McPhee talking Tommy through a harrowing encounter with feminine hygiene products; Black Shawn asking Tommy to bless his engagement to Colleen, then verbally castrating him when he withheld it.
And there were four, maybe five monologues that ranked with the series’ best. My favorite was the scene where Shawn (Larenz Tate) confesses to Franco (Daniel Sunjata) that he’s thinking of asking Tommy’s daughter Colleen (Natalie Distler) to marry him. “Rescue Me” is aces at this sort of sing-song dialogue — verbal music that would be right at home in a 1950s New York movie, the kind where people yell at each other from fire escapes.
Shawn: Wait a minute … Do it? Pop the question?
Shawn: Coming from America’s most wanted with girls …
Franco: Hey, now, order in the court. Listen, man. Let’s be real, OK? It’s me. I mean, you came to me to ask me about whether or not you should marry this girl, probably because everybody in this house knows I’m a stone-cold playboy and you thought I was gonna talk you out of it. Now, what that says to me is you really love this girl. You want her. And that’s cool. It’s just that your nuts have crawled up somewhere behind your pelvis and you can’t work up the nerve to pop the question. And I tell you what, Shawn: I’ve seen the way this girl looks at you. She loves you. She’ll say yes. All you gotta do is man up and ask.