Rescue Me: The Complete First Season Review
"Hey Pal, I'm a New York city Firemen, my whole god damn life's a gamble."
As a show about New York fire-fighters Rescue Me never looks to break the stereotype so often associated with the men who risk their lives and the egos that drive them, but instead dissects these individuals into a series that explores through a combination of sex, drama and action what it is that makes these men who they are. The show's hook is the post 9/11 setting and the open and frank way in which the characters - all involved in the immediate emergency response that day - deal with the horrors witnessed and personal losses acquired. These are men dearly in need of a way to open up but their egos and indeed their job simply won't allow it, so instead we follow the often destructive patterns their lives take on.
The central figure of the show is never anything less than Engine 62, a New York City firehouse that carries within its own set of rules and guidelines by which those it provides shelter too must live. Housed within are numerous characters ripe for development with their families and personal lives gradually unveiled as the season progresses. Of these characters the series' focus is primarily on Tommy Gavin, a veteran fire-fighter currently separated from his wife Janet and living somewhat dangerously (in an emotional sense) across the street where he can keep a watchful eye on her, their children and the new man in her life. Some of the most defining early character moments in the series involve Tommy's harrowing dreams in which he imagines his family trapped and burning to death, before going on to see the victims he was unable to save. Most prominent however is the interesting dynamic Tommy shares with his cousin and best friend Jimmy, a former fire-fighter and one of the four men Engine 62 lost that fateful day in September. Yes that's right, Tommy sees dead people. Unlike Haley Joel-Osmond however Tommy is fully aware of this fact, and often debates with his cousin whether he's actually there, or if Tommy himself is slowly cracking up. Either way the dead people Tommy finds himself seeing and holding conversations with offer a revealing insight into the factors which torment those men like Tommy on a daily basis, and how the macho bullshit which surrounds a position like that of a fire-fighter makes it almost impossible to seek professional help.
So instead Tommy self-medicates, putting down enough hard licker to knock out a horse and seeking comfort in the arms of a trio of women - his cousin Jimmy's widow (a serious breach of rules in the fire-fighter/guy "code)", a late-night booty call and his soon-to-be ex-wife - all the while adeptly manipulating those around him including his own children in order to come out in their eyes as the man he wishes to be. Obviously it regularly blows up in his face when their are adults involved, but watching Tommy manipulate his children for his own personal gain is often disturbingly satisfying, because he's just so good at something that is so very wrong. What's important in all this drama however is that the writing never fails to match the complex situations Tommy often finds himself in, and that Tommy - for all his faults - is a genuinely decent guy whose life is simply slipping through his fingers. Doing anything he can to prevent this from happening while also keeping his options open allow the lies and situations to spiral out of control, always ending in disaster but never without managing to amuse, arouse and entertain first before ultimately ending as you would expect.
"If there is a God, he's got a whole shitload of explaining to do."
This pattern is then mirrored throughout the other guys in the squad, albeit on a lesser scale with each slowly developed through the course of the season. From a daughter the squad playboy never knew he had to finding himself with a ring trapped around his dick and in need of a buzz saw to cut it off, Franco is as stereotypical as the rest of them but a fine example of the characters you'll find. Ken on the other hand is one of the older guys, stuck in a marriage which fails to excite him anymore and seeking desperately to understand what happened that day by writing poetry. It's an early storyline which crops up a number of times over the season, resulting in numerous reactions from those around him and indeed the viewer, from his wife who simply mocks him and had me condemning her, to the support group who accepts his poetry only for Ken to passionately and understandably reject them. The characters who surround Tommy at the firehouse are never developed much beyond a few key factors but they're also never forgotten and gradually build to often satisfying conclusions that prove to be compelling viewing while the relationship they share which encompasses the central figurehead of the show - the Engine 62 firehouse - is the strong welcoming arm you'd expect and is never anything less than present and accounted for at all times.
The flowing episodic structure not only allows the many relationships to flourish or wither but it also provides ample room for several key issues to be tackled. The central premise of the series is obviously along the lines of "Who will rescue the rescuers?", fighting the horrors they see and their own egos which prevent them from accepting help, but we also look at the problems these factors create in the profession as a whole, with gay and female fire-fighters top of the list. Both are tackled in interesting ways with political and personal reasoning employed and explored with the female-issue even seeing a new addition to the cast and Engine 62 firehouse roster towards the end of the season. Laura - ably played by Diane Farr who has a knack for these roles that involve mucking in with the boys - is the new and predictably sexy female fire-fighter facing all the prejudice you'd expect from the boys as she attempts to prove to them their lives are safe in her hands (which also succinctly sums up the issues the men have). So while the female issue is ongoing by the season end the other seems a little too easily resolved, and is quickly dropped in favour of another story for the main character involved. This in many ways represents the only real issue I had with the series' development, with the writers prone to simple and fast resolutions to certain plot lines, only to bring back the occasional one for light comic relief (such as the darkly amusing "Hero" complex one of the guys has to endure from a victim he saved) while in other areas, the brave calls are lacking in execution. Hopefully it's not too much of a spoiler to say that one of the squad dies mid-season, and while it allows for some great moments in terms of how those affected by this event react, you may just find yourself lost more in the actual moment not by the tragedy, but in attempting to place the name we hear on everyone's lips to a face. Up to this point in the season run, the character in question has been largely insignificant and almost completely undeveloped, making this a cheap but effective way to open up some additional elements to the other characters' pre-existing storylines, but it remains a decision by the creative staff that is transparent to the viewer and ultimately bursts the reality for a moment.
As for the technical and artistic merits of the series, we find a strong cast who rarely put a foot wrong with Denis Leary in particular on fine form in the central role of Tommy, playing the Irish heartthrob with a mixed sense of status with great verve though it has to be said he does look a little too good at times, always perfectly groomed and kitted out in designer outfits when, for example, his dead cousin's ghost manages to age noticeably even though you'd expect otherwise. In terms of direction I felt the season started out stronger than it finished, mostly due to the greater use of the 'dead people' angle in the first half which led to some very stylised approach by the directors (the premiere episode in particular has some quite stark imagery). Towards the end of the season run it feels a little more by-the-numbers, most likely because everyone had settled into the groove by this point and certain thematic elements have also been toned down as part of the storyline development, though it has to be said for a series set in New York the location shoots do manage to be surprisingly bland. Surely a result of the fact most locations need to be set on fire, you can hardly take pot shots at the crew for this but the show is about fire-fighters, and is set in New York, so it does become a little obvious after several episodes that locations were on short supply. Elsewhere I have to say the use of music is often very effective, with many episodes even pulling off the dreaded musical montage to great effect thanks in most part to a good selection of recent popular music and a keen sense of how to surmise the many plot threads by selecting key visual emotional moments.
In six paragraphs I’ve somehow failed to mention just how gut bustlingly funny Rescue Me is, not through gags or direct physical comedy, but through its flowing natural dialogue and the obscene situations the characters are usually found. This is a show about guys being guys, playing off each other’s egos with the dialogue to match, from the least subtle of subjects such as comparing dick size to the more common ribbing that goes on in everyday conversation between men. As a writer Denis Leary (partnered with co-creator Peter Tolan) surpasses his acting role within the series by delivering some astounding chunks of dialogue that keep you transfixed to the screen at all times, laughing and crying, living and dying with the characters whose emotional highs and lows are complimented at all times by some of the finest writing you’ll see outside of a HBO or other FX series.
Each disc features the SPHE logo animation followed by the Piracy commercial which is slowly making its way onto every DVD release of late, though fortunately in this case both can easily be skipped with the chapter forward button. Once you're at the main menu presentation is good with the show's theme song used against some full motion video menus that are quick and easy to navigate.
All 13 episodes of season one are spread across four dual-layer discs, utilising a 3/3/3/4 format which means they're given plenty of space to play around with. Shot in 24P HD the end result is a modern series given a strong transfer to DVD, with rich details levels throughout providing realistic skin tones and textures while the compression is well handled with no apparent side-effects such as aliasing, edge-enhancement or macro-blocking. The only area of minor disappointment comes with the action-orientated moments of the series, where the lighting is rather low as the squad tackles a fire and leads to some reduced detail levels. This is mainly due to the production choices however rather than the transfer to disc, so is not a huge problem but still worth mentioning all the same.
The English 2.0 Surround audio mix does its job well providing clear dialogue and a wide soundstage for the varied musical accompaniment and action scenes. English subtitles are provided for the both the main feature and extras, while English HOH and Hindi subtitles are also available on the main feature.
Extras are spread across the discs with commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel all present. Dennis Leary and Peter Tolan wear many hats on the show with their central position of co-creators/writers of the series placing them well to provide commentary on the first and last episodes. Their long-term working relationship is obvious from the opening minutes as they settle into a set of engaging tracks that are mostly scene-specific, detailing stories from the set and more often than not, the inspiration for the stories being told on screen. Full of honest discussion about the show and its genesis I found myself left wanting more, and with a sneaking suspicion they recorded many more tracks which for one reason or another, never made it onto this (or the R1) set.
Disc one plays host to four making-of featurettes that look at the creation, casting and production process with a total running of time of just under an hour. Consisting primarily of on-set camera interviews with Leary, Tolan and the main cast and crew there is a positive energy and level of commitment to the majority of comments that make these a worthy addition to the set, though not something you’re likely to revisit. The same can be said of the short gag reel which offers the usual combination of on-set antics and actor screw-ups, while the series of deleted scenes found on disc two offer a few additional and extended scenes that were surplus to requirement. Finally there is a preview of season two to be found on disc one.
Offering a great deal of drama and action across its season run, Rescue Me is a sharp, fast-moving series with plenty to keep you interested but what I’d like to emphasise once again is just how funny it can be. The characters depicted are those you can find elements of yourself or people you know in, and that extends to the sense of humour, which is mostly of the sarcastic variety but also extends to practical jokes and ridiculous yet amusing realistic situations. Its essentially guys being guys but the dialogue is eminently quotable and delivered with flair by the accomplished cast, and like everything in life, the humour can be found in any situation no matter how wrong it may seem, and this is something Rescue Me manages to capture in amongst all the soap-opera like affairs and stereotypical character portraits found within. Life is so often a stereotype, and Rescue Me is a series not averse to depicting it as such.