'Rescue Me' post-mortem: A look back at a show unafraid to confront the personal cost of 9/11

Tommy-Gavin

Image Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

In the opening moments of last night’s series finale of Rescue Me, it looked like we were going to get exactly the sort of solemn, reflective experience that we’re going to want (or for some, need) when the ten year anniversary of 9/11 comes this Sunday. We saw the all too familiar images of flags draped over coffins and grieving family members, and listened while an embattled co-worker tried to properly eulogize his fallen friends. It was a poignant reminder of what most of us saw on TV ten years ago, and it set us up for an 80 minute summary on exactly how much we’d lost.

But then Tommy Gavin woke up, because Rescue Me has never been that type of show. Yes, it’s about 9/11. The unspeakable pain that resulted from those events may be dulled by time for many of us, but for 62 Truck, and particularly Denis Leary’s Gavin, it’s going to be there every day. But the moments that made the show so special during its seven year run were never the (abundant) tearful funerals or even the frequently spectacular firefighting sequences. At its core, Rescue Me was about how the survivors of these catastrophes, ranging from 9/11 to everyday warehouse fires, picked up the pieces and went back to work in their aftermath. It was about the ways that Tommy, Lou, Franco and the gang dealt with their survivor’s guilt, with everything from dark comedy to booze to sentimental poetry. These guys ran into burning buildings, lost friends and family, and had to keep going anyway.

Guilt and grief are not the most pleasant central topics for a television show. Why did I survive, when my buddy did not? But pleasant or not, these are things that thousands of people are still facing in the wake of the attacks, and they are exactly what firefighters deal with on a sadly regular basis. It’s not all shirtless calendars and cats in trees, folks. That hero carrying the little girl out of a burning building has probably had bad days at work that make ours seem downright peachy. And Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan had the courage to confront those days head on.

I was about to enter my freshman year at NYU when Rescue premiered in 2004. Timing and location made the show perfect material for television and communications courses, so it was via assignment that I was first introduced to Tommy Gavin. Admittedly, he took some time to warm up to. Even for an FX dramedy, this dude is dark. In season 1 alone, we saw him drink his liver away, make sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, and, most disturbingly, sleep with his cousin’s 9/11 widow. Even Lou, the show’s deeply flawed but usually likable moral compass who dealt with the aftermath by writing poetry, cheated on his wife with a younger model. It became clear very quickly that the men of 62 Truck were not your average television heroes, even though, to be fair, that average television hero had already changed a lot in the post-9/11 universe.

But these guys were doing something that characters on other shows (particularly those taking place in New York City) were not. They were talking about it, honestly and frequently. Sometimes through jokes around the table at the firehouse, sometimes tearfully (or violently) over drinks. We saw them try to work through their muddled feelings, often using less than desirable methods, on a weekly basis. We saw painful depictions of alcoholism and drug abuse, as some characters turned to them as a means to numb their pain. 62 Truck discussed everything from death to drinking to survivor’s guilt to the widely circulating conspiracy theories, and we as an audience were fortunate to be able to sit in.

We needed it. Even in New York City, in a time when the FDNY was lauded on the nightly news, the general population seemed to know next to nothing about the men in yellow. We knew that they were there to save us, and we knew that 343 of them had tragically perished on September 11, 2001. But what made these people run into burning buildings and save lives when the rest of us would run away, and what drove them to keep doing it in the wake of unspeakable tragedy? At its best, Rescue Me tried to explore and make some sense out of those questions, and according to Gavin in last night’s finale, “you can’t drink or fight or screw your way to figuring out the answer.”

Yes, the show had some major flaws. The male firefighters were deeply fleshed out and frequently relatable, while the female characters were a gaggle of shrewd and often mentally unstable harpies. If you wanted a deeper look into the thoughts and feelings of a likable 9/11 FDNY widow, Sheila Keefe was not your gal. Tommy’s wife, Janet, was mostly just infuriating. And after the first few seasons, the show slipped into typical nighttime soap opera fare. There were far too many hookups, slip-ups, and drunken Gavin family brawls to count on both hands.

That was why it was so refreshing to see the series finale return to the show’s darkly funny and ultimately meaningful roots. Tommy lost his best friend in a warehouse fire, but this time, after seven seasons of questioning, drinking, screwing, fighting and healing, you knew it wasn’t going to break him. “People die,” he said to a brand new class of probies. “We’re firefighters. We die a lot.” This new class is unfortunately going to have to find that out for themselves, and ultimately decide if they want to keep going. Let’s just hope that they find their answers more easily than Tommy Gavin.

Read more:
‘Rescue Me’ series finale: Were you satisfied?


Comments (16 total) Add your comment
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  • Daddyb

    I’ve been thinking about the series finale all day. For me it was one of the most satisfying season finales ever. There was closure, but it was not completely (nor conveniently) wrapped up in pretty bow. You knew that Tommy Gavin was still going to have problems, and that Janet was always going to have trouble coming to terms with the man she married… and yet you knew it was going to be ok.

    The gum-chewing ashes scene (and the scene following it)will forever live in my memory.

  • Buffy Freak

    The show just went off the rails for me about two seasons ago. All the stuff with Sheila and janet, Colleeen’s drinking, Tommy’s relapses, all the gimmicky dream sequences and ghosts…it just got to be too much. As for the finale, it just didn’t really work for me. I’m glad I have the first several seaosn on DVD so I can watch them and just kind of forget the last couple ever happened…

    • meme

      me too. i stopped watching about 3 years ago. it turned into a soap opera. finale was a big letdown.

  • Snsetblaze

    While I agree with the writer’s comment about the women, there were a couple of likeable ones but they generally were in smaller roles – Kelly (Maura Tierney’s character) was a match for Tommy. It was great that he could not control her and she did not live for him. And the female firefighter they have for a couple of seasons was more than shrewd and a harpy. It was too bad when the actress went to greener pastures (Numbers). I wills say that I found the finale pretty satisfactory. And the gum-chewing ashes scene and what followed were probably the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

    • Karen

      You know, I agree with you on this. Kelly was a terrific female character. Quite frankly, I know that most of the women were a bit crazy but this show was from a man’s point of view. I never had a problem with the way women were portrayed. It added to the comedy for me. Will miss this show very much.

  • Deets

    When reading the review, I wondered if the writer and I had been watching the same show, then when they mentioned they were a freshman in college in the show’s first year, that explained a lot. Like lack of critical reference. The show started off promising enough but became ridiculous a number of years ago when every female character became in heat at the sight of Tommy Gavin. Um, no. It ultimately became nothing more than an exercise in male vanity for Denis Leary. I could go on, but that in itself was enough to turn me off Rescue Me years ago, despite my interest in the other, more grounded characters who always got short shrift whenever Leary decided Gavin needed to get laid.

  • Chris

    The finale was great. The show certainly had some down times. Even Peter Tolan admits that. Overall it was a very good show and will be missed.

  • Ryan

    I enjoyed the finale. There was no secret or twist. It was true to its deeply twisted and troubled roots. The guys stayed together and continued on because that’s what family does.

    Great scene at the end with ghost Lou and Tommy.

    • Mike

      Agreed about the final scene. And loved that it mirrored the scene with Tommy and Jimmy from the pilot episode.

  • Francisco

    Farewell to a terrific show. I’ll miss seeing ladder 62 at work and at play.

  • Keith

    This was a great show.

    For those ripping it, go back to Jon and Kate or Jersey Shore. Some people are never happy.

    Maybe it was to creative or smart for some.

  • PA_Bill

    Great series finale. I was afraid it was going to be a somber affair from the previews & first scene, but then it turned into a funny, poignant reminder of why we loved these characters for the past 7 seasons.
    The Garrity ashes scene, the red velvet cake mix scene, and the final Lou/Tommy scene were some of the best TV of the 2011 year.
    Long live Engine 62 and God bless the FDNY!!

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  • Michael

    Yeah, speaking of Rescue me, LUCY.
    Do you remember that con artist that stole Lou’s life-savings?!

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