"Rescue Me" has explored 9/11 with sorrow, a celebration of everyday courage, and lots of penis jokes — and gotten it almost exactly right.
The show ends Wednesday, just days before the 10th anniversary of the tragedy that gave it a reason to exist. Its central question was why some people died and others lived, and what the survivors owe the dead.
The show examined it through the fictional Ladder 62 and co-creator Denis Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, a courageous, philandering, alcoholic idiot-genius haunted by visions of death — including that of a cousin and best friend killed on 9/11.
Leary's own cousin was a firefighter killed in the line of duty. Jeremiah M. Lucey was one of six firefighters killed in a Worcester, Mass., warehouse fire in 1999, and Leary has since raised money for firefighters and their families.
Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan also plumbed the unresolved emotions of those who survive tragedies their brethren don't.
"It’s all inside of them, but they don’t really deal with it directly or by talking to somebody," Leary said at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour. "Because they are still jumping on the rig … trying to drink it away or f— it away, you know, and the damage that does to them."
Anyone who saw last week's episode won't need any urging to tune in Wednesday. It ended in a breathtaking warehouse fire remarkably similar to the one that killed Leary's cousin. The episode culminated with an explosion and no sense of which men in Ladder 62 lived or died. The finale centers on a funeral.
Over seven seasons and 93 episodes, Tommy served as a stand-in for anyone who resolved to live differently after 9/11.
Millions felt directionless after the attacks, and wondered what they could do to help. Some changed their lives for the better; others slipped back to normal as the guilt, empathy, or sense of duty subsided.
But Tommy wasn't an Everyman. He was better and worse. For all his heroism, he drank dangerously, disappointed everyone around him, and in his most unforgivable moment, in the third season, raped his wife.
The show looked at the human capacity to do great things, utterly waste our time, or hurt people around us — all at once. It handled its heavy questions without heavy-handedness or judgment.
It giddily straddled the line of good taste, and whenever things got a little heavy, there was some banter about a penis that resembled a baby carrot, or a flatulent girlfriend, or an endless array of cheap stereotypes. Some of the comedy came from real firefighters, who the show hired for their technical expertise — and then exploited for their deranged stories.
The show delighted in pushing boundaries — including when actor Daniel Sunjata's character, Franco, gave voice to the actor's real-life belief that 9/11 was an inside job.
But all of the extremes captured the sense of hyper reality that pervaded everything after the attacks. (I covered 9/11 as a reporter, in New York and New Jersey, without being in anything even close to physical danger.)
There was a sense in the days after that things eventually had to go back to normal — that at some point people would talk about something, anything else, and the news would end the apparent loop of planes hitting buildings. It all felt impossible, too accurate, like fire in a dream. The sky was too blue before it happened.
The show captured that sense perfectly, both in its hallucination sequences and blunt portrayals of real life.
One moment you're making stupid jokes with your friends; the next you're witnessing something that doesn't seem physically possible, much less logical. And then you keep dealing with it, endlessly.
"I’ve always felt that there’s an American response to things like that where they say, 'Well, that happened, and we survived it, and it’s done. It’s over,'" Tolan said. "And it's like it's the extrapolation of George Bush saying, 'Mission accomplished,' you know, when, in fact, there’s so much more work. There’s so many more tentacles of pain that are still being dealt with because of that event. And so just in terms of keeping it alive, in some small way, I felt like that was a positive ancillary effect of 'Rescue Me.'"
The show could have used the tragedy as an excuse for scenery chewing. Sometimes it felt too close to the line. But the obvious reverence for humanity — the capacity to rescue or need rescuing — has always pulled it back.