Early in season four of Denis Leary's hit firefighter dramedy Rescue Me, Tommy Gavin (played by Leary) and his wife Janet decide to see a couples therapist. Janet has recently given birth to a new baby, and she and Tommy have decided, once again, to give their troubled marriage another try. When the th erapist asks, "So, why don't you give me a little recent family history so I know what we're dealing with?" Tommy and Janet run through their high school sweetheart years before giving a basic recap of the past three seasons:
"So we split up," Janet says. "And he rented the place across the street to be near the kids and also to keep an eye on me to watch who I was dating."
"Yeah, you should have seen that group of guys," Tommy says. "Real winners in there, like that guy Roger... Anyway so she takes the kids, the furniture, the money, everything and moves to Ohio. And I tracked her down."
"Yeah, I came back," Janet says, "and he decided to start dating the widow of his cousin who died in 9/11... and then she got pregnant."
"Okay, I didn't decide. It just happened. She either had a miscarriage or she had an abortion, I don't know which. Anyway, she didn't have that baby... But then she got pregnant," Tommy says, pointing to Janet, "but I'm pretty sure that's my baby because we were having an affair while she was having an affair with my now-dead brother."
By now the therapist is completely dumbstruck.
"And then," Janet says, "our son was killed by a drunk driver."
"Yeah, who my uncle then shot," Tommy says, "You might have read about that, that was in the papers and stuff. Then... the 'rape.'"
"Yeah, but we -- we don't have time to go into that right now..."
Anyone who watched even just this scene would have a pretty good idea of how the show rolls. It's basically a guy's soap opera, where dick jokes and racial humor meet increasingly bizarre romantic triangles and throwaway plot twists. All of this was fine for the first few seasons. I could get past the fact that Tommy's storyline revolved solely around his alcoholism and marital problems because it never seemed like he was overtly hogging the limelight. Other characters from the firehouse had solid, well-written storylines: Franco finds out he has a young daughter (who he decides to take custody of when the mother dies) and later becomes addicted to painkillers after being injured in a fire; Lou gets a divorce and is conned by a young woman out of his entire savings, leaving him sleeping in the firehouse and contemplating suicide; Chief Reilly's wife is diagnosed with Alzheimer's and he's forced to ask for help from his estranged son (who Reilly had disowned after his son admitted to being gay).
That Rescue Me was, from the beginning, pretty much a way for Leary and his old Boston comedy club pals (Lenny Clark, Peter Tolan, John Scurti, Adam Ferrara) to have some fun can't really be denied. It was a formula that, for whatever reason, didn't work out so successfully for Leary's previous show, The Job. The dialogue sold Rescue Me for a while—fast-paced, joking, clever, basic-cable-filthy—but that hit the wall in season four, when the stand-up-routine style started dominating the show's direction. Alan Sepinwall made this point back in 2007, after Leary and Tolan decided to kill off Chief Reilly, a decision that prompted Jack McGee (who played Reilly) to call Leary a bully and an egomaniac. As Sepinwall wrote:
In the middle of the otherwise contentious TWoP feature on Jack McGee's departure, Peter Tolan explained that they killed off Jerry because they wanted something that would shake up the other characters. Leaving aside the theory that drama works better when it flows out of the characters instead of outside forces, Jerry's death feels especially cheap now because almost no shaking up takes place... If it was just the non-impact of the Chief's death, I might be willing to stick around, but that's just a symptom of a much larger problem. On this show, it seems like nothing impacts on anything anymore. "Rescue Me" is just a jumble of scenes-some funny, some dramatic, some lame-that all feature the same characters but have little connection to one another.
And so it continued this past season, which I could put up with if I knew they were working towards some strong series closer, the way The Shield dragged on way longer than it should have but more than made up for it in the end. But when it was revealed back in June that Rescue Me is slated to run three more seasons, ending in 2011 with its finale on or around the 10th anniversary of 9/11—an appropriate date if the show hadn't by now worked itself so far away from dealing honestly with that tragedy—it was hard to see how the show would turn itself around.
The one solid storyline that could have made this season work was so completely mishandled by Tolan that's it's hard for longtime fans not to feel outright resentment. Within the first few episodes, it's revealed that fireman Sean Garrity has developed kidney cancer as a result of his work at Ground Zero. He can't use his department's health insurance or tell the rest of his crew about his diagnosis, as other firemen who've done so were demoted to full-time desk duty and forced into early retirement. The dramatic possibilities here are endless, and the opportunity to confront an issue that's largely been ignored by the mainstream media could have redeemed the show after season four's many, many failings. Instead, what viewers were given were four or five bizarre and cringe-inducing song-and-dance numbers. As Tolan told TV Guide, "We were sort of looking for a way to showcase Steve's singing, and this seemed like the most natural way -- these fantasies while he was being prepped for surgery or after. The good thing is they're all on story. The first one is more naturalistic -- there's sort of an MTV feel to the second half of it, but it feels a little more grounded. Then they just spin out of control."
How Tolan and Leary couldn't see this would fall flat is all beyond me, and as season five dragged on things only got worse: the woman who had previously taken Lou for everything he was worth shows back up and wants to make amends (by 3/4 of the way through the season the two are, yes, of course, married); there a couple of wholly unnecessary celebrity guest spots (including Michael J. Fox as Janet's drugged-out, wheel-chair-bound boyfriend -- the obvious romantic choice for a working single-mother raising an infant and a middle-school-aged daughter); and when a French reporter shows up to the firehouse to interview the crew about their experiences on 9/11, it devolves into another sleazy and tired romantic escapade for Tommy.
Worse than any of this however is Tommy's relapse into drinking after receiving his one-year AA chip. For about the last three seasons it's been his cousin Mickey who has kept Tommy attending meetings and staying sober, even after a number of family tragedies. Mickey has been a rock of sobriety. So when Tommy reveals that he's been drinking again, Mickey and the rest of the family organize an intervention. Tommy, however, isn't having any of it, and at the end of episode 16, all it takes is a short rant to convince Mickey and nearly everyone else to start drinking again. The scene is so completely unbelievable, so utterly careless with character development, that questions about how Leary and Tolan expect to fill out three more seasons of this aren't even worth asking anymore. So for me at least, it's goodbye, Rescue Me.