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Leary on Fire

In TV’s first post-9/11 drama about the FDNY, Denis Leary turns his acerbic wit on firefighters. But can viewers handle an unflinching view of their heroes?


You wanna know how big my balls are? Bigger than two of your heads duct-taped together. I’ve been in the middle of shit that would make you piss your pants right now.”

These are the first lines uttered on the new FX drama series Rescue Me. The delicate phraseology belongs to Denis Leary, who co-wrote the show with Larry Sanders alumnus Peter Tolan and stars as veteran New York fireman Tommy Gavin. Viewers have come to expect such foul-mouthed bravado from Leary, 46. The blue-collar tough blustered his way into notoriety with his singing-and-snarling 1991 downtown show No Cure for Cancer and cantankerous spots on MTV, before transitioning to gruff straight-shooter roles in movies like The Ref and canceled cop sitcom The Job.

What’s unexpected, however, is the source of Leary’s rage: Not Barry Manilow or anti-smoking crusaders, but 9/11 and its aftermath. What defines the Gavin character is that he survived the Trade Center attacks while 343 of his comrades did not, including four from his firehouse. Of Jimmy, his cousin and best friend, only a solitary finger was recovered.

Tommy’s as shell-shocked as a Vietnam vet, suffering survivor guilt and flashbacks, falling off the wagon, alienating his wife, and having unnerving chats with Jimmy’s ghost. In other hands, his attempts to heal himself might be grim grist, but Leary and Tolan have injected plenty of dark-and-dirty humor evocative of M*A*S*H (the movie, not the TV series).

"New Yorkers are proprietary about 9/11, like, ‘How can you use that for your own gain?'"

It sure isn’t Third Watch, which Leary says he’s never watched, labeling it “bullshit. Fake fire shit. Hero worship, what people like to think firemen do.”

Whereas on Rescue Me (which premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday July 21) one firefighter complains, “All that pussy I was getting after 9/11? Now, nothing. People forget.” The members of Tommy’s crew shun the shrinks assigned by headquarters, traffic in racism and homophobia, ogle women they drive past on the job, prank “probies” into producing stool samples, and hold betting pools about everything, including the prospects for Tommy’s marriage. Only when no one’s looking do they weep or write poems about what they’ve suffered.

The wry warts-and-all approach has worked for FX’s hit shows The Shield (L.A. cops) and Nip/Tuck (Miami plastic surgeons), but is America ready to see the flawed humanity of its recently enshrined heroes? “It may be too soon to look at this,” admits Tolan. “People are still mourning.”

Of course, Hollywood’s primary reaction to 9/11 was to tighten security at the studios and delay the release of a too-close-for-comfort Schwarzenegger movie. It has reverted with heedless swiftness to producing sensationalist twaddle like The Day After Tomorrow, in which global climate change freezes the Empire State Building. To be fair, with rare exceptions (like All the President’s Men or The Best Years of Our Lives), there’s usually a necessary time lag to turn touchy current events into powerful—and commercial—popular entertainment.

Yet Leary has boldly chosen to wrestle with 9/11 while the front page still covers the emotional briar patches of congressional hearings, site redevelopment, Michael Moore mischief, and married firefighters running off with 9/11 widows. He’s doing it because he grew up among firemen and had already started a firefighters’ foundation before 9/11. For him—and thus for viewers—Rescue Me is not just another TV show, nor is it a cheesy exploitation of a national tragedy. It’s a Passion play akin to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—but from the bleaker point of view of a lapsed Catholic. “If there is a God,” Gavin says at one point, “he’s got a whole shitload of explaining to do.”

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