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Rescue Me, The Final Season: Gripping, Funny, Heartbreaking

The final season of FX’s Rescue Me - the tragicomedy about the dysfunctional guys who man NYFD 62 Truck (Engine 99), and their families, children and assorted girlfriends - launches July 13, at 10p.

My husband calls Rescue Me the “Mt. Olympus of dysfunction.”

The last season is eight hours of engaging television viewing – funny, heartbreaking, and completely satisfying.  And, while Denis Leary is the undisputed star of the series, he leaves plenty of room for the quirky ensemble of painfully real characters that populate the show.

The final season is really nine episodes.  But I say eight because the premiere episode is a slog.  It’s slow, and tedious, and repetitive, and you will have your head in hands thinking: “Oh, no! We’ve seen this all before and it’s totally circular.”  Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) still feels guilty and responsible for every bad thing.  Tommy and his wife Janet rehash the same issues (he can’t overcome his 9/11 survivor guilt).  Their daughter has another predictable relapse, and set-ups are implausible - recovering alcoholics own a bar and hold recovery meetings there after hours, for instance.

In the provided press materials, co-creator/producer/writer Denis Leary defends the repetition: “Tommy, of course, has been back and forth with the alcohol because that’s what real life is like for these firefighters.  To my mind it’s way more interesting to see the reality-based struggle they wage with the bottle, and in real life I’ve never witnessed these guys quitting drinking and staying with it.”

As much as the first episode is a tedious slog, it also recharges the battery of the characters and themes. By the second episode – holy mother - the show roars back and episode two, by contrast, is drop dead funny and irreverent, and touching.

The overweight food addict, Kenny “Lou” Shea (John Scurti), can’t pass his annual physical, and antics follow.  On an errand for his daughters and pregnant wife, Tommy awkwardly and comically ends up at the feminine products aisle of the local drugstore and runs into an ex of sorts, Kelly (Maura Tierney), scarfed, clearly in treatment for cancer.  (This plot point was openly discussed by the producers recently.)  Kelly and Tommy have coffee afterwards, a moment that’s both unsentimental and poignant.

Without a fire to fight in weeks, tedium sets in at the firehouse, leading to a priceless sequence set to Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got The World On A String.”

Episode Two nevertheless establishes a thread that will run through a number of episodes: sensitivity training.  The women in Tommy’s life are starting to emasculate him.  Since he’s a callous jerk with few redeeming qualities most of the time, there’s a certain pleasure in watching him get his comeuppance.

Classic schadenfreude.  How fun is that!?

The conversation with Kelly sets thematic wheels in motion: legacy.  Tommy begins to consider what his legacy might be when he passes.

Later on, the same theme is revisited and deepened.  After a lunch with Deputy Chief Feinberg (Jerry Adler) following a viewing of the World Trade Center ruins, the perennially padlocked Tommy  starts to open up.  (In classic Rescue Me style, the lunch scene is understated and moving, and showcases Adler’s acting strengths.) Tommy entrusts Lou, his best friend and fellow firefighter, to carry out his wishes should he ever be killed in the line of duty.

The firehouse brotherhood banter is fabulous, as usual - ragingly funny and shamelessly politically incorrect. You can’t not love this group of courageous crazies who show their love by squabbling and lobbing insults mercilessly.  Notably this season, Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) finds true love but, inevitably, there’s a catch - something that’s laugh-out-loud funny with an equally wacky solution to the problem.  And bi-sexual, but mostly gay, Mike Siletti (Michael Lombardi) discovers he has a knack for wedding planning.

But in terms of individual performances, it’s really the women who deliver.

The show-stealing, tour de force performance belongs to Callie Thorne who plays Sheila Keefe, the widow of Tommy’s firefighter cousin who died on 9/11.  At one point, an ambitious reporter swoops in to the firehouse to tape an exploitative, schmaltzy documentary about the heroic, deceased firefighters of 9/11.  What viewers will see is a retrospective, a glimpse of the person Sheila was before the devastating events of 9/11 killed her husband.  And when said ambitious reporter decides to advance her career by smearing the Gavins and the firefighters of 62 Truck, it’s a brazen Sheila who serves up the delicious revenge to the reporter.  And it’s Sheila who gets rollicking drunk at a wedding and misbehaves.

The other compelling and nuanced performance comes from the gutsy Maura Tierney as the fierce, sweet, tough Kelly McPhee.  Tierney herself had completed chemotherapy for breast cancer a scant six weeks before filming and she was bald from the treatment.  Per the press materials, when her agent called to let writer/executive producer Peter Tolan know he could rescind the contract for obvious reasons,  Tolan, according to Tierney, “came back and said, ‘no, we really want to incorporate what’s going on with you into your character.’”

I’m sure everyone assumes the last season will feature at some point a fire battle, so it’s no surprise that it does.  The battle is epic, full of pyrotechnics and long shots of the five-alarm response.  It’s gripping, and I had to call my husband into the room to hold my hand during the scene.

In other news, surprisingly, Tolan disclosed in a New York Daily News interview that a major character will be killed off.

Series finales tend to be traumatizing and and character death can often be gratuitous, so I watched with some trepidation.

Tolan had this to say in the NY Daily News (see above link): “I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a very successful series finale….You’re saying thanks for coming along for the ride. Every now and again, a show says ‘f— you’ to the viewers in the last episode. Not us.”

I can’t tell you (because of spoilers) how true Tolan’s words are.  The Rescue Me writers delivered.  The series finale, and the entire season (for the most part) is perfect – gripping, tragic, funny, uplifting, beautiful.