Roughly midway through the second season of FX's Rescue Me, New York firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) is called by his dead cousin's widow to give a lecture to her teenaged son, who has just expressed an interest in becoming a firefighter; having lost her husband in the World Trade Center, she's not interested in having another smoke-eater in the family. Tommy is most of the way through his lecture, giving the kid the full business about the horrific side of the job, people found without faces or melted to their beds, but then he turns it around and starts in on how at the end of the day, he knows that no matter what, he made a difference. It all brings a smile to the face of his cousin, standing behind his son. You see, Tommy's cousin might have passed away, but being dead doesn't keep you from the cast of Rescue Me -- it just means you're not necessarily in every episode.
The first season of the show was a rollicking explosion of male-bonding, sadistic humor, and whiskey tears spiked with that FX Channel-brand of almost-HBO boundary-pushing. Gavin was a weekly train wreck of rage, bouncing from his mistress to booze to his failing marriage to booze to tempting death on the job with FDNY Engine 62 to booze again. Along the way, Tommy also held long and in-depth conversations with the ghost of his dead cousin, before deciding to shack up with and impregnate his cousin's equally messed up widow, Sheila (Callie Thorne) in the aftermath of his wife running off with the kids. Season Two opens with everything in disrepair, to say the least, as the firefighters keep pushing through the emotional wreckage of 9/11 long after the country has moved on.
Tommy's been transferred out to the boonies, biding his time in a Staten Island firehouse where the biggest thrill is having to pay into the swear jar. He's still chasing down his kids and even trying to get his drinking under control. It's a rough start, as the heart and soul of the show is the Engine 62 firehouse itself, with its cramped quarters and rowdy camaraderie -- and without Leary, the show's star, co-writer, producer, and general animating spirit, in the mix of things, the first several episodes feel disjointed. The season picks up once a helpful deus ex machine puts Tommy (now sober, but just as death-defying and rage-filled) back with his original crew, providing enough of Leary's brand of misanthropic humor to grease the wheels for the show's more serious side.
The darker subplots of season two range from the youngest firefighter (or "probie" in the parlance) stalking his girlfriend after she dumps him, to Sheila's sanity dissolving into unhinged, mournful neediness, and Chief Jerry Reilly (the fantastic Jack McGee) dealing rather poorly with both his wife's Alzheimer's and his son's homosexuality. There are times midway through the season when the show drags, where it seems to be just checking in from one grim scenario to the next, leavening just enough humor to keep things going, and tying up each episode with a montage set to a plaintive song (a lazy method of ending TV dramas that's been all too in vogue recently). An ill-conceived subplot involving Tommy's dissolute father and uncle (Charles Durning and Lenny Clarke, respectively) goes nowhere, Tommy's visions of Jesus feel like they were dropped in from a different show, and all the show's female characters keep flipping back and forth between controlling shrew and out-of-control freak -- the two categories whom almost all of them are crammed into by the writers.
Rescue Me's second season definitely has its lower points, pointing to a possible inability to continue for more than another season or two without repeating itself. But the last two episodes are truly explosive, pulling out all the stops and throwing several of the main characters into a sorrow-stricken maelstrom that takes its place among some of the most emotionally wrenching drama ever put on a TV screen. For all its faults, Rescue Me at least does an honorable job of trying to come to grips with death and grief, a surprisingly rare thing, even in cable TV's current supposedly no-holds-barred environment. The firefighters are presented as not just flawed and profane heroes, but victims as well, dragging around the spirits of their departed. Tommy knows that he can quit drinking, get his family back together, and in short get everything in his life put into a neat little box, and yet it won't erase the ghosts, those charred and chattering figures who will follow him to his dying day -- hero or not.