Rescue Me, ending a seven-year run on FX, was the best artistic engagement with Sept. 11, and with the wounds New York sustained that day
Tomorrow, I will get up from the longest, funniest, dirtiest, least politically correct, and most meaningful shiva of my life, when the final episode of Rescue Me airs on FX. The series, which premiered in 2004, followed the valiant professional and maniacal personal lives of a group of New York City firefighters in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
I came to Rescue Me fairly recently, when I casually downloaded an episode one night last July and ended up watching all 13 shows of season one in a single sitting. Looking back, I think I expected the show to be shallow and self-important, but what I encountered was something else: a drama, a comedy, an extended frat-house romp, an essay on the white ethnic melting pot in which Irish, Italians, and Jews have stewed together for the past century, and one of the filthiest soap operas ever made. It was also, I soon realized, a surprisingly useful mourning ritual—and possibly the culture’s best artistic engagement with the traumatic events of Sept. 11.
Rescue Me’s competition in the field of Sept. 11-related art has not been all that impressive. There was the Sex and the City episode in which Carrie exhorts “the girls” to shop in support of their wounded city, and Neil LaBute’s more poignant though ultimately just as glancing 2002 play, The Mercy Seat. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 was a real-time, delicately fictionalized recreation of the harrowing flight of the plane driven by hijackers into a Pennsylvania field, a film that applied the cleansing antiseptic of fact to the wounds of that day but fell short of being able to offer the ameliorative bandage of feeling. Then there was Oliver Stone’s 2006 World Trade Center, which, through its combination of off-putting bravado and ham-handed sentimentality, managed to offer neither.
Rescue Me had the courage to look squarely at the aftermath of Sept. 11 while also venturing bravely into the fog of the overwhelming, often inexplicable, and long-lasting emotions that the day aroused. The show was created by television producer Peter Tolan and actor Denis Leary, the latter of whom also stars as its lead, Tommy Gavin—a “seething urgent animal” who, driven by an otherworldly combination of bravery, rage, sweetness, alcoholism, an insatiable sex drive, and a wicked wit, is a character worthy of Greek myth.
Tommy is also a black hole that threatens to swallow any (sometimes all) of the characters in the show—which, it should be said, was cast to perfection. John Scurti played Tommy’s slovenly, witty best friend; Daniel Sunjata was the Puerto Rican dreamboat; Mike Lombardi and Broadway veteran Steven Pasquale were resident bumbling idiots with terrific comedic timing; and Andrea Roth and the inimitable Callie Thorne stood as the two pulsing female poles between which Tommy pings for all seven seasons: Janet, his long-suffering, insufferable blonde wife, and Sheila, the lunatic brunette mistress, who—because this crowd really does seem to model its family values on the House of Atreus—is also his dead cousin’s widow. It’s a motley crew, but that’s the point: Each character’s relationship to the others, and to Sept. 11, is different. By tracking all of them simultaneously, and over the long haul of seven seasons, Rescue Me managed to present a grieving process that felt both intimate and also like a collective portrait of the experience of an entire city in mourning.
Somewhere in the middle of watching the third season, the thought occurred to me: Was Sept. 11 the moment I officially became a New Yorker? I moved to the city from leafy, suburban Long Island in 1993 to attend Barnard; by my mid-20s, my college fling with New York had matured into a grown-up commitment. But I knew none of the thousands of people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and so to ground my connection to the city in a tragedy that was so directly personal for so many of my near-neighbors felt mawkish and pretentious. As I continued to watch Rescue Me, though, I realized the show was proposing something altogether different.
Television offers the ability to experience a cast of characters over a simultaneous extended period of their lives and our own: They grow (or don’t) as we grow (and don’t). This matters even more when the operative emotions being processed are grief and fear, both of which need nothing as much as the long arc of time to become comprehensible. And yet, for all this seemingly woo-woo chatter, Rescue Me was never for the faint of heart. It was a button-pushing, boundary-flouting, testosterone-fueled slayer of artifice pulling at scabs and seemingly healthy skin alike. Everyone—the Irish, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, the Catholic Church, Sept. 11 widows—was routinely tweaked with matter-of-fact, sometimes-gasp-inducing vulgarity, and none of the show’s best lines can be quoted here. These include the dialogue in one of my favorite moments: a knockout scene that takes place when misogynistic comments to a female firefighter land the crew in sensitivity training. (Let’s just say George Carlin could be the episode’s patron saint.)
Many of the storylines were patently ridiculous, and some of the scenes were unspeakably gruesome—including one in which Tommy looks up after giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a badly burned black boy. “Uh, Tommy,” someone awkwardly notes, “The kid’s lips. … They’re, uh, they’re stuck to yours.” In another one of the show’s most talked-about episodes, Tommy rapes his wife; in the next scene, she is placidly reading a magazine on the couch. Later, one of the characters asserts his belief that Sept. 11 could have been an inside job—an idea that, in a department that lost 343 men that day, is not simply unpatriotic; it’s psychologically destabilizing.
As I hit the third season, I realized that the show’s truly radical element was its lithe toggling between absurd stand-up comedy; reflexive raunchiness; a commitment to civic values, if not the circus of politics; and, last but not least, enough proximity to death to appreciate the importance of emotional and psychological clarity. That’s about as close to a personal motto as I get, which might be why—despite their obvious and insane flaws—I started to almost wish I could know, even live among, the characters of Rescue Me.
Experiencing their perseverations over seven seasons has been, at times, unbelievably frustrating: Tommy’s two concubines approach and repel him like magnets that reverse their charges each morning; Pasquale and Lombardi’s characters rarely stray far from low comedy; and—the see-saw on which every other episode seems to hinge—Tommy routinely jumps on and off the wagon. For a while, this last bit of back-and-forth was the most maddening for me—until I realized that Tommy’s dance with alcohol mimics exactly what it feels like to writhe in a certain kind of extended pain: excruciating, soon exasperating, eventually even boring. In such instances, reaching to anything for relief—including levers that have, time and again, proven useless and even toxic—is not just human; it is almost hopeful. Tommy is an alcoholic who can be racist, chauvinist, manipulative, and cruel, but at least he is fighting to stay alive. And the longer he does, the safer the rest of this city will be. “Let me tell you something,” Tommy spits, before storming out of the sensitivity training session. “Next time I walk into a burning building and refuse to bring out anyone who’s not the same color as me, that’s when you can bring my angry, sober, pink, Irish ass back down here.”
This kind of values-based impropriety is the show’s real argot, and it made working- and middle-class New York sexy again—a welcome respite after the one-two punch of shows like King of Queens, which marked the outer boroughs as havens of schlubby quaintness, and Sex and the City, which gave well-off Manhattan a monopoly on sex and pathos. On Rescue Me, pretense is the hobby of the privileged, and a meaningless, boring one at that. By contrast, Tommy Gavin and Co. live the way we all should—not, as Hallmark cards instruct us, as if every day could be our last, but as if every day was, miraculously, another day: another opportunity to laugh, eat, work, have sex, drink, or smoke, and hardly a thing to waste on superficial rectitude. “The best place to get into a discussion is a firehouse,” according to Tommy. “There’s nothing sacred here.”
Purity demands space—room to keep everyone and everything looking pristine. People in firehouses don’t have the luxury of physical or spiritual space from the imperatives of their own best and worst impulses, or from each other. “That’s the beauty and the terror of it,” Leary told me recently. “I have this group of people who will know everything about me, whether I like it or not—and sometimes before I do.”
It was in this way that Rescue Me’s firehouse grew into a metaphor for my city. Here we live pressed up against each other, in a sweaty, passionate, uncomfortable crush that can, if you let it, melt away artifice and bring out your crudest, most generous, maybe most obnoxious but finally truest self. In the period after Sept. 11, this crush—which I had always viewed as an uncomplicated good—began to seem like a terrifying liability, because it was what made me, and everyone around me here, so vulnerable: One can do so much damage in a small space. Taking this idea as their Archimedean point, the creators of Rescue Me crafted the love letter to New York that I didn’t have the fortitude to write—not a note of simple infatuation, but an unquiet missive from a heartbroken partner, desperately trying to burn off enough pain and fear and rage to stay put.
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