That aggressive, chain-smoking swagger and fuck-you rasp, the toxic provocations and limitless well of bile: Denis Leary’s stand-up act rarely translated any of his blue-collar male rage into actual laughter as far as I was concerned. But all the things that made me hate Leary as a comic have been reconfigured as effective components of Leary as a Method actor. In the TV drama Rescue Me, he makes a surprisingly—annoyingly, even—compelling lead character, his pent-up fury perfect for the role of burned-out firefighter Tommy Gavin.
Last year’s debut season, co-written, like this one, by Leary, centered on Engine Company 62, a fictional Manhattan firehouse that lost a handful of men on 9-11. Tommy, guts rotted with grief and alcohol, unraveled before our eyes. Haunted by the ghost of his cousin (did you know there’s now a law that all highbrow TV series must include dream sequences and talking corpses?) and pickled in booze, Tommy lost his home and family. In a final devastating blow, he was transferred to a new firehouse after a drunken lapse led to his partner being injured. The opening scene of season two is the perfect teaser for the state of Tommy’s life: We see him charge into a burning building and get flattened by a collapsing ceiling. His mind, spinning through a kaleidoscope of recent events, offers him a psychedelic list of pros and cons for living or dying. Clichéd really, except that it’s just a trick. Turns out that Tommy’s not perishing heroically in a fire: He’s lying in his living room in a drunken stupor.
Tommy’s new job is at a Staten Island firehouse so suburban and action free that he feels emasculated. Instead of battling infernos and rescuing asphyxiated victims, his new colleagues spend their days doing effeminate things like scrubbing the station’s kitchen or practicing their barbershop quartet harmonies for an upcoming competition. It’s like he’s been transferred from an army regiment to a Girl Scout troop. Tommy misses the hardcore camaraderie of the old place, where life revolved around getting each other’s backs and boasting about the size of one’s balls. Testicular endowment has always been a running theme: In one episode, Tommy informs a roomful of novices, “My balls are bigger than two of your heads duct-taped together.” Another episode is simply titled “Balls.”
Although Rescue Me is about public service and civic duty, its testosterone-scented atmosphere resembles Mafia dramas like The Sopranos. Once again we’re in a world that’s male only and ethnically defined (most of the firefighters are Irish American), held together by blood brother loyalty forged in combat and ritualized homophobia, in which the risks of the job (the constant possibility of death) are soothed by the bottle or just plain bottled up. Women are almost as marginal here as they are in the Godfather trilogy. In a concession to modernity, Tommy’s old station house has hired a single female firefighter, Laura (Diane Farr), who gamely deflects the condescension of her boss (on a mission, the chief tells one of the men entering a blazing building to “take the girl with you”) and the sexism of her colleagues. Instead of formally protesting, she uses their masculine anxieties against them. One particularly dopey firemen covertly borrows Laura’s instant camera to snap a prank portrait of his penis; after an embarrassing moment at the one-hour photo store, she takes revenge by posting the picture on Craigslist as a gay ad, complete with his home number.
Unease about masculinity pervades the whole series. Last season, the chief beat up a queer fireman, perhaps compensating for his own shame at having a gay son. Tommy’s replacement at the old firehouse, Sully (Lee Tergesen), is an incongruously metrosexual character whose Jamie Oliver-esque cooking and fabulous back massages are initially welcomed by his new colleagues (once they get past the squeamishness of having another guy touch their bodies). Gradually, suspicions are aroused and in a truly corny twist (one of the series’ few false notes), Sully is exposed as not a real man at all. Rescue Me cleverly sits on the fence, presenting homophobic attitudes in such a way that viewers can condemn or concur with them, depending on their political persuasion. The slurs and the banter feel realistic, the sort of institutionalized attitudes you’d expect in these masculine bastions that depend on male bonding but must constantly ward off the specter of same-sex desire. The question the show implicitly raises but never answers is whether these meatheads would be as effective at their jobs if they were more sensitive or in touch with their feelings. In this drama, even the tiniest revelations of tenderness are rebuffed. One lieutenant’s attempts to vent his grief via overwrought poetry are met with disgust; his wife advises him to keep his misery to himself.
At the center of it all and emblematic of these contradictions is Tommy, a stubborn seven-year-old boy trapped in the body of a middle-aged man, unable to express emotion except with his fists. Rescue Me‘s title becomes beautifully ironic. It describes Tommy the heroic public servant, a real man’s man with the mettle and sense of duty to sacrifice himself to save others. But it also fits Tommy the emotional retard, a lousy life partner (so bad his wife flees town with the kids) and a man who needs to be saved from his own self-destructive impulses.