Ordinarily before I write a real essay or piece of criticism, I want to have my text mastered, be it a poem, novel, film, or television show. But as my ex-chair once wrote on a chapter of mine, criticism is in part about striking the difficult balance between objective analysis and emotional engagement. And as I sit here alone on a cloudy morning in August, just having watched this episode of Season 7, I am reminded of just how difficult that balance is to strike.
I saw the first episode of the final season of this show which means more than I can express as the characters in the show were for years of intense isolation my only friends and family, the night it aired on July 13. I was not overly impressed and I felt the ending, with Tommy upset over Colleen’s loss of sobriety, over the top and unrealistic. (He takes the shotgun under the bar and shoots the bottles to hell and back. This is not how even a self-destructive man in that class with a profitable business acts, leaving aside the criminal implications of shooting a gun in a crowded bar.)
But this episode takes me back. It takes me back to that horrible and unhappy apartment to which I refer as Death Gardens during those insufferably hot summers, hot because the apartment had two walls of windows with afternoon sun and there was no relief from May to October, in spite of being in Santa Barbara, whose chief virtue is universally acknowledged to be the weather.
Someday I will write the whole story of the summer of 2004, particularly August, when the pilot aired and I happened by some fluke to see the ads on Fx. My friends know it but that story, and related ones, must wait for another day. It takes me back to turning on the VCR on which I taped the first two seasons and seeing Sheila and Tommy on Tommy’s porch–the “prick of a squirrel [eating through my roof ]” scene–when she bums a cigarette and they talk in the first season’s third episode about missing Jimmy, Tommy’s heroic cousin and best friend who died on 9/11. In that scene, Sheila comes over in muted hysteria over the worry her son Damian is dealing drugs. But it’s not about a few pills here or there and she says abruptly, mid-rant, “I wish Jimmy were here.” Beat. “Yeah.”
Sheila asks if it is just her or if everything feels like it’s going to hell. Tommy says no, that he looks at this “shit across the street” (meaning his separation with Janet which has resulted in the family living in two homes) and the mood at the house and feels like everything’s just slipping away and that there is nothing he can do. He goes on a bit and she finally cuts him off in what at the time seemed harsh and unsympathetic but I later understood is just part of the “no pussies”/suck it up attitude of the show and the perspectives of the working class, non-therapy friendly lives of those it portrays: “Jesus, Tommy.” “What?” he asks with complete innocence, unaware of the effect his tale of woe has had on her. “How big a pussy are you? I lost something. My husband. The things you want, they’re all here. You just have to work for them. Grow a pair of balls, why don’t you?” She adds as she walks away, “And talk to Damian!”
It struck me that summer how odd it was that in the next episode, one of my all-time favorites in which Sheila and Tommy have their first date and kiss and Colleen gets in an accident before Tommy goes to pray in the church and we meet Uncle Mickey for the first time, no mention is made of this unpleasantness. I think that’s the difference in part between the world in which I grew up and this one and it isn’t so much about money or class. It’s just that in this world, people speak their minds and if it’s harsh and people get their feelings hurt, that’s just how it goes. People get over it and move on rather than holding onto resentments endlessly and engaging in subterranean emotional warfare, though there is plenty of that in the show as well but more in the romantic relationships than the friendships.
That was also the porch on which the hilarious “blowjobs and ballgames” scene takes place in the second episode of Season 1, “Gay.” I still feel that the first two seasons were the best, nearly impeccable scripts for each episode, not to mention exquisite execution in terms of acting, music, and direction. This is the scene in which Tommy is on the BBQ with the ghost of Jimmy, and as Tommy tells Maura Tierney’s character in the episode I just finished from Season 7 (she has cancer), those ghosts are only partly a function of the drinking.
In my analysis of the show’s first two seasons–a textual analysis of 70 pages with 50 footnotes, ironically the inverse of my first dissertation chapter on George Eliot (“‘Redeemed as Progress: Toward a Critical Itinerary of Eliot’s Fictional Project”), which was about 50 pages with 70 footnotes, I discuss the brutal finale to Season 1 in which Tommy fails to act appropriately in a fire, leading to Franco’s serious accident. (I began the document just as I stopped work on the dissertation and its title reflects that sort of “dovetailing” from one project to the other: “The Intersection of Ethics and Aesthetics in Season 1 and 2 of Rescue Me.”) The brutality–and injustice–of that episode with for me a haunted title (“Sanctuary,” again a story for another day) lies in the fact that Tommy’s punishment and exile from the busy Harlem house to the goody-goody, corpse-like house in Staten Island seems not only excessive but questionably justified, because Tommy sees the ghosts which in the fire paralyze him when sober as well as when drunk. The exile and concomitant blame is a double whammy of course because set to the song Denis Leary calls one of the best rock songs he has ever heard in the 2006 soundtrack liner notes (Rubyhorse’s “Fell on Bad Days”), when Tommy walks into the home vacated by Janet when she kidnaps the three kids and takes them to Ohio.
In the hilarious “Gay” episode, Tommy and Jimmy are discussing lesbians. Tommy says he wishes his daughter were a lesbian. “Which one?” Jimmy asks, bemused. “Both! Why don’t they have a pill for that!” His rationale will be familiar to many fathers; the idea of what my friend with grown boys calls “reprobates” (any boy twelve and up for whom sex is the primary content of consciousness) groping, pawing and perhaps screwing one’s teenage daughter is hardly a welcome prospect! How much better, Tommy reasons, to have her “sucking on a pair of tits” than involved with some loser hopped up on Viagra with two bags of DVD porn in the basement. Jimmy, hilariously, asks, “By the way, where are those bags of DVD porn?” “Wouldn’t you like to know!” This is all heartwarming even though you realize Tommy is talking to a ghost! Jimmy is dead and yet he is in this moment carrying on as though nothing has changed, so full of grief and longing for the camaraderie and easy companionship he enjoyed with Jimmy. It is a warm but intensely bittersweet scene.
“Camaraderie” is the key word in a wonderful Season 2 episode called “Twats” which I will not here discuss, but which revolves around a legitimate complaint by Laura, the only female firefighter, after Lou calls her a twat in a fire and refuses to apologize. For me, with no friends for many years, the camaraderie among the crew members was the first draw to the show. A close second was the focus on a trauma, 9/11, which resonated deeply with me. And then, of course, the hot, sexual, sweet, funny men. I had none of those in my life either! Or family.
It is, as always, a hilarious piece of gay comedy and as everyone who knows me knows, I am the most gay-friendly straight person on the planet, to use a favorite locution of the crew members on the show. But I love the gay stuff which is a staple of the comedy in nearly every episode. I will blog on that another day, taking from my essays on Denis Leary Facebook Discussions, about 25 of which are mine. At one point, it was more like Victoria Ordin Discussions on DL’s page. In this wonderful scene, Tommy says, “I am PRO-lesbian.” “Really,” says Jimmy. “Oh yeah, I’m a big supporter of the lesbian community. I wish my daughter was a lesbian.” His reasoning is limited but not entirely off.
Gays, Tommy says, have it made. “How so?” asks Jimmy. “Well, I’m a guy. You used to be a guy. We both know guys suck!” He says guys who have common interests–like sports and sex–will get along well and that there will be none of the traditional domestic discord in which Tommy and his wife, like most married couples he knows, specialize. “And if he’s interested in sports, you can go to baseball, football, hockey, basketball. It’s all ballgames and blowjobs!” Hilarious. As is the comment about the “dykey lookin’ chick” in the supermarket with Jimmy’s widow and his future on-and-off lover in the show, Sheila. And the Johnny discussion of Roger (Tommy’s soon-to-be ex-wife’s boyfriend) and his odd record in San Francisco, which can only mean that he got caught taking a blowjob from a hooker in the car or “takin’ it up the ass in the park.” “Of course if he is gay,” says his cop brother Johnny–the incomparable Dean Winters, now making a fortune as Mr. Mayhem, after a life-threatening accident, “What’s he doing with Janet.” “Takin’ a breather?” offers Tommy. “They do that?” “How would I know?” Funny, but a PC person would get uptight about the third person pronoun “they” as if this was prejudicially stereotypical.
The raw grief of one of the first two scenes of the season with Sheila and Tommy set alongside the “ballgames and blowjobs” scene epitomizes what is universally acknowledged to be the show’s trademark: tragedy and comedy juxtaposed so closely that you can go from tears to laughter in a matter of seconds.
The episode I just watched from Season 7 has more than its share of comic relief–black Sean going to look at Colleen’s 4.5K wedding dress with back-up (Sean, who has jerked off to a bridal magazine, and Mikey, his “best gay friend”)–lived up to early seasons of Rescue Me on the score of emotional power but was quite subtle. Denis Leary’s acting has never been better, from the conflict he experiences as Lou’s best friend in the “mutiny” scene, when the crew begins to get aggressive about Lou’s obesity and eating disorder (oddly no one suggests Overeaters Anonymous for him, just a diet, though AA is a huge part of the show), to his rescue mid-shift of his ex-flame who now has cancer from a disaster of a date with a hot, New Age doctor boring her to tears. I thought Maura Tierney’s character was quite stupid through no fault of her own. But giving Tommy a third love interest was structurally and emotionally confusing and it diluted what has always been at the core of the show: the Tommy/Sheila/Janet love triangle.
I’m sure Leary and Tolan took the creative risk, which in my view failed miserably (nowhere more than the ridiculous scene of the catfight between Janet and Sheila who drop by her apartment one episode), was that Tierney’s character lost a child. They probably viewed it as a way to get more mileage out of a dramatically powerful and successful arc of the show: Connor’s tragic death at the hands of a drunk driver in Season 2, episode 12. I like Tierney though I thought ER was not half the show Grey’s Anatomy is, particularly in the late years. I didn’t even really watch once Dr. Mark Green left (Anthony Edwards). I just thought the whole storyline was weak.
But Leary and Tierney did have chemistry and their scenes in this episode are spectacular, both the initial one when Tommy asks, “So what bored you to tears?” and she says all his woo woo bullshit, essentially, about healing and meditation and release of anger which he claims (rightly) damages the immune system in terminally ill patients. Tommy, and I will go back to get the line right, says that she should “embrace her anger and pride, and wrath and resentment, all of which by the way [he] specializes in.” Classic black comedy from the lovable, angst-ridden and physically gorgeous Tommy. It is naive to deny that part of Tommy Gavin’s appeal is Denis Leary’s own extraordinary physical beauty and sex appeal, together with that fabulous voice and effortless cockiness tempered with sweetness, to me the ultimate in a man.
Later in the episode, Needles asks Tommy to confront Lou about his eating, since his poor physical condition does endanger lives and we learn in the penultimate scene that Lou feels responsible for Damian’s accident (not simply paralysis but permanent vegetative status). Tommy assures him this is not true, or at least not entirely true and that there were other factors in the proby’s accident with which Season 6 concludes. Damian is not technically Tommy’s nephew but in the show and perhaps in the working class Irish and Italian FDNY families the show so authentically and passionately portrays, the children of cousins are considered nephews.
Even this scene between two of the best male best friends ever to appear on television in my lifetime, a serious scene about the risks of obesity–heart attack and death–opens on a comic note with Lou searching for the cupcakes he has cooked and Tommy entering the kitchen said cupcakes on a tray. This reminded me of an early scene with Tommy and Damian when Damian is furiously searching for the pills he is indeed dealing on a small-time basis and Tommy walks in with that inimitable Tommy/Leary swagger: “Lookin’ for these asshole?” Rescue Me is about many things but friendship is in my view among the top three. Denis Leary, Peter Tolan and company portray male friendship better than almost any television show in my lifetime of watching TV (this coming from one raised around the industry, going to tapings of Family Ties every Friday starting in 4th grade and immersed in adult dramas from a young age).
The closest to the depth and complexity of feeling we see among men in 62 Truck would be the partners on NYPD Blue, my Rescue Me before Rescue Me. I have seen the first ten of twelve of the episodes only (another casualty of the depression which I have meant to rectify by buying the full 12-season boxed set for months now), but I know that show inside and out and think Andy’s relationships with John, Bobby, Danny and John (Clark) are all very nuanced.
Still, and this is another topic I address in my textual analysis, Rescue Me differs in one fundamental way from a formulaic cop drama, even the best of them, which in my view NYPD Blue is. While Steven Bochco’s show did deal with the personal lives of the detectives far more than say, Law and Order in any of its three incarnations, or CSI, each episode is on the professional front self-enclosed, like a sitcom. There is a recognizable beginning, middle and end. The personal relationships carry over from episode to episode, but in Rescue Me the storylines are generally evenly divided between personal and professional and while one fire does not carry over to the next, there simply is a different relation between the experience of the firefighters and the particulars of an individual fire or call.
That is, at least in the first two seasons where fires occurred pretty much in every episode, one might have an episode more tilted toward the personal than the professional, but in general they were pretty evenly balanced. Even in the most personal of the cop shows, like Bochco’s masterpiece, in which some of the personal intersected with the professional in the way that detectives handled each other in interviews or the squad room, the bulk of the action focuses on the cases in that episode. And at the end, each case is neatly wrapped up with a little bow, however much moral ambiguity one could count on in the course of the cases’ solution.
Leary’s and Tolan’s show is not concerned with female friendship but one of the other hallmarks of the show is the eerily insightful way that the all-male crew of writers write female characters and the female point of view. Nowhere is this truer than in the portrayal of Laura, played by The Job veteran Diane Farr, in the end of Season 1 and Season 2, in which she is a full-fledged cast member. (The job was a half-hour dramedy from 1999 to 2000 by Leary and Tolan, starring Leary as an alcoholic Irish NYPD cop with a flawed by not beyond all repair marriage. It starred Adam Ferrara and Lenny Clarke (Uncle Teddy), Leary’s fellow comedians on the Rescue Me promotional tour I saw twice, at the second of which I met Leary, Clarke, Ferrara as well as Leary’s oldest sidekicks from Boston, musicians Adam Roth and Chris Phillips. It was a very good show and consequently it got canceled by ABC after a single season because Americans have no taste–it was a critical success–and it got bad ratings.)
Janet and Sheila, the two central female characters, and until this bizarre season, arch rivals for Tommy’s affections, could not be more different and yet each is enormously layered and also powerful. My mother saw the first two seasons of the show and in the one year in about eleven we were close, I made her watch it and we would discuss my document almost daily. She felt that the writing of the interior lives of the women was astonishingly compelling and because my mom is first of all not as sexually open as I am, and second of all much more concerned with not being mean or offending people than her un-PC daughter, it is a testament to the heart, integrity and underlying goodness of a show like this that she liked those first two seasons so much.
But the show is told from a male perspective, not a female one, and it is one reason clear to anyone who is a fan of Greg Dulli’s music–frontman of Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers–that Leary and Dulli are so close. Both are intensely concerned with sex, angst, anger, male desire, and the generally disastrous state of human relationships, particularly romantic ones. And both have of course fabulous senses of humor, obvious in the case of Leary who made his name in standup before acting, but also in the case of Dulli to anyone who has read interviews with him or seen him on stage. They really are two peas in a pod. Greg Dulli’s liner note to his 2005 solo album, Amber Headlights which he put on hold after the death of Ted Demme, who introduced Leary to Demme in the 1990s, was very moving about the last dinner he, Denis, Ted and his wife Amanda had before 9/11 and Demme’s 2002 tragic collapse at a celebrity basketball tournament at the high school campus of my elementary school, St. Augustine or Crossroads Elementary as it is now called. One can feel the love they all shared through years of personal and professional collaboration. Two songs from Dulli’s solo album appear on the show and it was through the soundtrack I discovered my favorite rock musician of the last fifteen years: “Pussywillow” and “Get the Wheel.”
On a side-note, I have been told that while I am uber-feminine and painfully sensitive–have been all my life–when it comes to gender relations I have a distinctively male point of view which allows me easily to distinguish between love and sex and thus subscribe to a very liberal notion of monogamy which makes me tolerant of open marriages both in theory and in practice. I could not care less when politicians cheat on their wives, though I think chronic cheating with multiple partners reflects emotional instability and immaturity and that these are indeed character flaws which bear on the performance of public duties. But I have absolutely no problem with a married politician who cannot get his needs met at home and has one steady girlfriend on the side or a couple FWBs.
I’m an athiest so the marriage vow is not at all sacred to me in a religious sense. One has indeed made a promise but I don’t see it as that much more significant than a promise one makes to pay child support and in fact, the latter promise means a lot more to me than the former. That is, if both partners understand it’s just a legal formality and want to have a bit more flexible of an arrangement, I have no problem with it. Morever, I do not feel that Up in the Air kinds of affairs mean that a husband doesn’t love his wife or a wife her husband. I think it’s perfectly possible for a man to have a hotel one-night stand on a business trip and for it to mean absolutely nothing, to be devoid of the most important sort of emotional infidelity that truly does eat away at the fabric of trust in a marriage.
I just don’t see a stray blowjob or a casual fuck as all that big a deal and I never have even in the summer after 8th grade, when I saw Heartburn in a Westwood theater and argued with my friend Amanda, with whom I was close through her years at Harvard and Harvard Medical School, that fidelity is not the worst evil in a marriage. She felt much more strongly than I, at 14 or so, that fidelity was absolutely essential. Now, Nicholson was an asshole in the film and he was in love with Thelma Rice and hurt Streep’s Rachel Samstat (a veiled Nora Ephron) and I did not approve of that. But some extracurricular activity is not to me the end of the world and ultimately less important than other things like emotional support, fun, friendship, upholding of financial obligations and so on. All I know is that in the depths of my pain, no two popular artists spoke to me more than Denis Leary and Greg Dulli in their respective genres. I have also been told by more than one man that I am a “man’s woman,” that is, I am perfectly fine talking about cocks and tits and blowjobs and other locker room topics.
Certainly, I am not shy about sex or nudity and perfectly comfortable with my own sexuality and body. I once wrote on Facebook, “Any sensible woman wants to be complimented on her tits as well as her brains.” Some women get so worked up over that. Hey, at 39.5 I’m proud of my perky 34Bs and if a guy thinks I have a great, tight ass, I’m thrilled. How any woman can construe a harmless, innocent compliment like this–even in the kitchen at work or by the water cooler–as sexual harassment is not only beyond me but intensely irritating, the sort of thing that turns people off of feminism, at least in its cuckoo, Andrea Dworkin, Second Wave manifestations. My boyfriend quoted my above comment on his Facebook Wall and wrote: “Victoria Ordin, 2011. My girlfriend rocks.” Even though I was celibate 8.5 years in my depression, it was not out of a shyness or prudishness, things from which I have never suffered. Dad joked I told the gardener when I first got my period, not true but the general idea is correct.
Along with the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy and the focus on male friendship, one thing which distinguishes the show from other dramas, particularly in the first two seasons, but also in the seasons beyond that, is what I call in my analysis the “element of retrospection.” In Season 1, we learn certain things about the Gavin family and the people in related families or firehouses which figure prominently in the lives of the Gavins. But each season, new truths about the past emerge and there is at once a backward and a forward looking dimension to the show which is quite rare in modern dramatic television. What I’m calling “retrospection” is more than simply the revelation of new information about characters as time progresses. It seems to me that with this show, the temporality truly has a doubleness which is unique among your traditional family or cop dramas.
The real kick in the guts, however, comes at the end of the episode when the crew watches the TV journalist’s tribute to Jimmy, with footage already shot of Lou, Sheila, and Franco. Tears instantly came to my eyes while the interview ran and at its completion, Tommy sits down to be interviewed. I must consult some of my die-hard Rescue Me fans on this but in one of the seasons I know least well, Season 5, I believe there was a video which cast doubt on what precisely took place in the second tower on 9/11 with Jimmy. That was the season we learn that Jimmy and Janet, Tommy’s on-and-off again wife (never formally divorce but separated a couple of times) had a fling at one point. I do not remember but Needles, played by comedian and Top Gear star Adam Ferrara, whom I have seen perform three times and met twice at the first and third of those performances–one in LA and once in NYC at Gotham Comedy Club–tells Tommy essentially to tote the party line about Jimmy’s heroism and leave it at that. The last thing, Needles rightly notes, anyone needs is some nosy parker journalist poking around his private life or the lives of the rest of the guys in the crew. (Lou married a hooker; Tommy is an addict and alcoholic, only sometimes in recovery; Chief Jerry Reilly swallowed a bullet; Franco stole his child from CPS only to have the girl taken by rich older lover Susan Sarandon; Needles had a Russian bride imported to America.)
And so, with Sheila, Lou, Sean and Needles looking on, Tommy takes his seat in front of the female journalist who asks somewhat melodramatic questions, when 9/11 provides plenty of drama on its own without concocted or overblown sentiment. She says he and Jimmy were best friends, cousins, brothers in the brotherhood. He says yes. Finally she asks what he would change about the way that day went if he had that chance and then, what his happy ending would be. Tommy struggles to hold it together throughout her questions, once glancing over to his friends in the moment he might have revealed the unofficial story of the Jimmy’s role on that “fateful day,” and says at last: “There are no happy endings.” The camera fades to black abruptly, no concluding musical sequence, which defines the ending of most episodes in the first three to four seasons. Music has a key role in the show, as it does in Grey’s Anatomy (even more so as it is not unusual to have three or four songs in a single episode), with which it shares the same talented musical director, Alexandra Patsavas, owner of the Chop Shop.
If Rescue Me had a slogan, this would be it: “There are no happy endings.” Moments of happiness–longterm contentment–are fleeting. Happiness defined as moments of pleasure, goodness, and humor abound. But real happiness defined as relationships becoming stable and free of conflict and pain: this does not exist in the moral or aesthetic universe of Rescue Me. And this, I believe, is one reason for the show’s lasting success and devoted following, even in the midst of the prevailing lack of taste in reality TV-obsessed American audiences. Of course the writing and acting surpasses nearly anything on television. But more fundamentally, the show underlines what Denis Leary has said in his comedy for nearly two decades and what so many Americans understand particularly now: life often sucks. Certainly, the predominance of pain in the show, alongside the essential integrity, humanity and love of the characters, drew me to the show about midway through my decade of darkness. And the humor kept me along for the ride from start to finish. I cannot wait to see the rest of the season.