Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Trauma and Drama on Rescue Me

Rescue Me, which ended its third season last night, is a series at war with its own worst impulses. In every episode -- indeed, in every scene -- the audience holds its breath, waiting to see if the writers will find a note of grace or banality.

Even the finale, a mostly quiet and occasionally meditative hour about the sacrifices the men of the firehouse have made, was marred by a ludicrous cliffhanger in which Sheila (Callie Thorne, doing strong work in an underwritten role), in a fit of rage prompted by the admission of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary, stunning even in the show's weaker episodes) that he's not going to retire and move with her to the beach, drugged Tommy, then accidentally started a fire, which she somehow couldn't put out (and she's supposed to be a fireman's widow?) and collapsed beside him as the flames roared around them. Sheila, a once interesting character, had sunk to the level of a crazy shrew -- an unfortunately common outcome for the show's female characters.

The cliffhanger was already objectionable for its lack of real suspense (does anyone really think Tommy won't get out alive?). But it was doubly unfortunate that it came at the end of a short arc (mostly dealing with the death of Tommy's brother Johnny, played by Dean Winters) that eschewed the show's usual on-the-nose approach to plot twists for something subtler. In large part, the season's last three installments had blended humor and pathos in a way that only Rescue Me can manage. It seemed possible that the show third year would end a high note -- a major victory, considering that this season was problematic even at its best. Co-created and overseen by Leary and coproducer Peter Tolan, Rescue Me tends to mistake collections of bad events for high drama, it has trouble drawing believable female characters, and it often doesn't trust itself to go for an understated moment when an over-the-top moment is readily available.
There's more where that came from here.

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