The original intention of Netflix Suggested Viewing was to recommend a quick movie or a documentary to pass the time when you’re scrolling through the Instant Queue for a distraction but aren’t ready to commit to any one show. I’m breaking with that rule for a couple reasons. One, nobody tells me what to do, not even me. Two, I haven’t been able to catch a new film in a few weeks and the urge to write is building up to dangerous levels; I considered starting a new blog where I just write about cheese. And three, well, there are some gems on Netflix that deserve consideration, regardless of their format. This last generation of basic cable original programming was like a Golden Age (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead) but it appears to have been a high-water mark and is beginning a slow decline, like the Byzantine Empire of old in a way that I don’t know how to finish this simile because I don’t remember anything about the Byzantine Empire’s decline (It declined, right? Had to…). I’m talking about Low Winter Sun, Anger Management, the super-okay Hell On Wheels, etc. shows that have redeeming qualities but are not looking like they will exceed the previous generation so I decided I’d reflect on one of the shows that came before.
I never got into Rescue Me until it was broadcasting its fifth season or so and was hesitant because of a small grudge I hold with Dennis Leary. Comic purists and devoted fans attribute a large portion of the stand up material that made him famous to the late great Bill Hicks. In the days before the internet it was a lot easier to plagiarize other comedians and there is some compelling evidence that the cigarette smoking malcontent persona that Leary invokes in his No Cure for Cancer set is a carbon copy of Hicks’ stage personality, down to the mannerisms and cultural references used. In the interest of impartiality, I’ll say that this kind of thing probably happened a lot more often in the pre-web days and whether or not it’s an unforgivable offense is debatable, there is an element of imitation in all art forms. To be completely honest, this vitriolic, self-destructive, social critic crossed with your basic factory-model asshole seems to suit Leary better than it did Hicks. Although, both comedians had/have a sincere conscience and an authentic desire to call attention to social injustice in their material, Bill is from Texas, and Dennis is from Boston. Bill discovered spirituality and spoke from a place that was angry and frustrated because he genuinely seemed concerned about the human condition, Dennis is from Boston. Bill originally wanted to be a preacher and was survived by his wonderfully soft-spoken, old fashioned parents, who seem left over from some other kinder, idyllic, fictional town like Mayberry. Dennis is… you get the idea. I don’t mean to generalize and discount Leary’s life story in anyway, I just don’t know anything about it. And when Bill Hicks passed away of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 he became a kind of legend to his fans, his story became both mythical and extremely personal to anyone with the time to really explore his body of work. So Leary hasn’t been deified in this way but has moved out of the world of stand up comedy into film and television, a world that Hicks adamantly refused to explore out of love of his specific art form, for stand up itself. To return to my original point, I wasn’t sure if I could separate the comic persona I knew from whatever character or story he might be trying to portray. In a dramatic comedy series based on New York firefighters coping with life that is returning to something like normality after the madness of 9/11, I wasn’t sure what tone or message could be worth watching. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to not see Dennis Leary.
So when I finally gave Rescue Me a chance I was stunned by how much range it has, there are few emotions the stories and characters don’t touch on, it’s a little overwhelming at first. And it’s definitely not for everyone, the show alienates it’s audience on multiple levels but not for the sake of alienation, rather, it has a comics willingness to explore the taboo, the offensive, the self-reflection, the profane, and the hypocritical all in the same breath. This show gets away with some pretty horrifying behavior because of how self-aware and grounded in reality it tries to be. The truth is, people in this profession use racial and homophobic language because they don’t really know any better. It doesn’t seem egregious because, relative to the horrors of their job and the gravity of the choices that they have to make, it doesn’t make sense to them to draw lines in the sand about what is politically correct in their day to day lives. It’s a fascinating show for demonstrating some of the heroic things that person is capable of while at the same time showing how deeply flawed they can be in every other aspect of their lives. Humanizing First Responders with a stark, honest light and a wry sense of humor makes for a pretty damn entertaining show.
Arguably the most heroic and capable character is Tommy Gavin, who also happens to be hands down the most emotionally maladjusted and narcissistic character in a cast stock full of emotionally maladjusted narcissists. Although he is a frequently lapsed alcoholic and semi-divorced man-child struggling to maintain a presence in his family after a separation, he is also the unquestioned leader when an emergency call goes off the rails. This is where Dennis Leary and Peter Tolan, the show’s creators succeed in spades, I don’t see a comic anymore, I don’t see an imitation of one my favorite comedians; I only see Tommy Gavin. Where it would be easy to assume that this character’s conspicuous and inspiring efforts to save every life that he can, going far above and beyond reasonable risk, is an effort to redeem and validate himself in some way, it’s important to remember that this is the same character who refuses awards, accolades, or promotion. This is a person who knows that he is sonofabitch and a bastard, he hates himself in a lot of ways but when it comes to doing his job, and this is true of every member of 62 Truck, they put aside their personal lives and take on that responsibility with grim determination and gallows humor. Which brings me to my next point.
Did I mention this show is funny? The drama and social satire can be a little erratic and unfocused depending on the subject matter being explored but what keeps this show from being weighed down by a sense of self-importance (in the early seasons, anyway) is how great the humor is. From broad, frat-boy hijinks to subtle rapid-fire wordplay there is constantly something going on. The dialogue is a joy, delivered by a pitch-perfect cast. No one character is always the smart one or the dummy, they each have their moments, they all riff off each other so perfectly it’s hard to picture these guys as anything other than a close-knit group of coworkers and colleagues. Everyone is fully realized and genuinely sympathetic, their chemistry is where Rescue Me really shines. That brotherhood is played for laughs and tears alike and it’s a rewarding experience as the show matures alongside the characters.
As with most comedy-dramas later seasons have a harder and harder time striking a balance between the two, teetering irrecoverably towards the latter. Rescue Me, already toes that line towards unwatchability at times and does eventually fall victim to melodrama, to soap opera plot twists that make it difficult to stay invested. When it gets bad it gets really bad and it’s up to the viewer to truck on through the tragedies and the heartbreak. Leary and Tolan take real risks with these characters, real gambles with the story and although they do lose at times they also win just as often. When this show is good, it’s really good. There are moments that are so poignant and beautiful that they defy the darkness they come out of and are unlike any other show on television. A lot of the writing lends itself to stagecraft and would be perfectly at home in theater, it’s human drama about masculine alpha male personalities discovering ways to deal with their emotions in the modern world where it’s okay for a man to cry or write poetry or demonstrate weakness of any kind.
The most compelling part of the story is Tommy’s hallucinations (?) of the people he has failed to save. It’s never explicitly stated whether or not the ghosts he sees are the real thing or part of his splintered psyche struggling to deal with survivor’s guilt. Whether they torment him or offer council or simply wander into his eyeline when he least expects it, they are a part of his character, they inform his conscience. And whether or not he listens or dismisses them and whether or not he’s going insane trying to make sense of a cruel, uncaring world, he is never truly alone, not really. For better or worse.