By Ken Tucker
April 01, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Some shows, when they hit a fifth season — as Rescue Me is now doing — grope for story lines, search for ways to spruce ?up familiar characters, and work in ratings-goosing guest stars. Their straining effort is obvious, and you can smell the desperation. But with Rescue Me, you smell the ?smoke: This series is officially on fire now.

Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin and his Manhattan firefighters are up to their usual tricks. Tommy continues to struggle with sobriety and ”sees” his dead cousin ?Jimmy (James McCaffrey). Pudgy horndog Lou (the wise John Scurti) falls for a comely French journalist (The L Word‘s Karina Lombard). Tommy’s estranged wife, Janet (the shimmering Andrea Roth), falls for a lout who’s great in bed (Michael J. Fox in an Emmy-deserving guest arc). And Tommy’s dum-dum ?teammates buy a bar and attempt to make it a hip hangout…by painting everything ?in it, including the glasses, black.

I’ve only skimmed the surface, suggesting without spoiling what happens in Rescue Me‘s new episodes. Last season, the show hit a rough patch. Its balance of laughs ‘n’ drama was itchy and off-kilter, with too much time spent picking at the Gavin family’s emotional scabs. Now Rescue Me has taken on an invigorated intensity. The emotional center of the series has always been the events of Sept. 11, a tragedy that is the literal ?ground-zero source of nearly all the pain ?the central characters continue to experience. ?And co-creators Leary and exec producer/writer Peter Tolan know they risk exploiting that event for melodrama or laughs.

But the new season demonstrates that good entertainment can address anything. Here, in episodes about what Tommy sees ?in BBC footage of the Twin Towers’ collapse, and the diseases suffered by firefighters involved in that calamity, the series earns both its drama and its bleak, soul-cleansing humor.

Of course, this being Rescue Me, none of this is solemn — it’s raucous and funny even when it’s tearing at your heart. You’ve got to watch to see firefighter Franco’s 9/11 ?conspiracy rants (Daniel Sunjata is so good at righteous vehemence). You’ve got ?to see Stephanie March, formerly a stiff ?on Law & Order: SVU, come to life as a ? psychic who’s advising both Tommy and lovably goofy Mike (clever Mike Lombardi).

And you cannot miss Michael J. Fox’s performance as a wheelchair-whirling, scruffy, profane rival for Janet’s affections. By the time he takes Tommy for a hair-raising car ride in week 5’s episode, you feel as though you’re in the backseat, hanging on for dear life, happily. A

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