By Shaunna Murphy
September 08, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT
Craig Blankenhorn/FX
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In the opening moments of last night’s series finale of Rescue Me, it looked like we were going to get exactly the sort of solemn, reflective experience that we’re going to want (or for some, need) when the ten year anniversary of 9/11 comes this Sunday. We saw the all too familiar images of flags draped over coffins and grieving family members, and listened while an embattled co-worker tried to properly eulogize his fallen friends. It was a poignant reminder of what most of us saw on TV ten years ago, and it set us up for an 80 minute summary on exactly how much we’d lost.

But then Tommy Gavin woke up, because Rescue Me has never been that type of show. Yes, it’s about 9/11. The unspeakable pain that resulted from those events may be dulled by time for many of us, but for 62 Truck, and particularly Denis Leary’s Gavin, it’s going to be there every day. But the moments that made the show so special during its seven year run were never the (abundant) tearful funerals or even the frequently spectacular firefighting sequences. At its core, Rescue Me was about how the survivors of these catastrophes, ranging from 9/11 to everyday warehouse fires, picked up the pieces and went back to work in their aftermath. It was about the ways that Tommy, Lou, Franco and the gang dealt with their survivor’s guilt, with everything from dark comedy to booze to sentimental poetry. These guys ran into burning buildings, lost friends and family, and had to keep going anyway.

Guilt and grief are not the most pleasant central topics for a television show. Why did I survive, when my buddy did not? But pleasant or not, these are things that thousands of people are still facing in the wake of the attacks, and they are exactly what firefighters deal with on a sadly regular basis. It’s not all shirtless calendars and cats in trees, folks. That hero carrying the little girl out of a burning building has probably had bad days at work that make ours seem downright peachy. And Leary and co-creator Peter Tolan had the courage to confront those days head on.

I was about to enter my freshman year at NYU when Rescue premiered in 2004. Timing and location made the show perfect material for television and communications courses, so it was via assignment that I was first introduced to Tommy Gavin. Admittedly, he took some time to warm up to. Even for an FX dramedy, this dude is dark. In season 1 alone, we saw him drink his liver away, make sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, and, most disturbingly, sleep with his cousin’s 9/11 widow. Even Lou, the show’s deeply flawed but usually likable moral compass who dealt with the aftermath by writing poetry, cheated on his wife with a younger model. It became clear very quickly that the men of 62 Truck were not your average television heroes, even though, to be fair, that average television hero had already changed a lot in the post-9/11 universe.

But these guys were doing something that characters on other shows (particularly those taking place in New York City) were not. They were talking about it, honestly and frequently. Sometimes through jokes around the table at the firehouse, sometimes tearfully (or violently) over drinks. We saw them try to work through their muddled feelings, often using less than desirable methods, on a weekly basis. We saw painful depictions of alcoholism and drug abuse, as some characters turned to them as a means to numb their pain. 62 Truck discussed everything from death to drinking to survivor’s guilt to the widely circulating conspiracy theories, and we as an audience were fortunate to be able to sit in.

We needed it. Even in New York City, in a time when the FDNY was lauded on the nightly news, the general population seemed to know next to nothing about the men in yellow. We knew that they were there to save us, and we knew that 343 of them had tragically perished on September 11, 2001. But what made these people run into burning buildings and save lives when the rest of us would run away, and what drove them to keep doing it in the wake of unspeakable tragedy? At its best, Rescue Me tried to explore and make some sense out of those questions, and according to Gavin in last night’s finale, “you can’t drink or fight or screw your way to figuring out the answer.”

Yes, the show had some major flaws. The male firefighters were deeply fleshed out and frequently relatable, while the female characters were a gaggle of shrewd and often mentally unstable harpies. If you wanted a deeper look into the thoughts and feelings of a likable 9/11 FDNY widow, Sheila Keefe was not your gal. Tommy’s wife, Janet, was mostly just infuriating. And after the first few seasons, the show slipped into typical nighttime soap opera fare. There were far too many hookups, slip-ups, and drunken Gavin family brawls to count on both hands.

That was why it was so refreshing to see the series finale return to the show’s darkly funny and ultimately meaningful roots. Tommy lost his best friend in a warehouse fire, but this time, after seven seasons of questioning, drinking, screwing, fighting and healing, you knew it wasn’t going to break him. “People die,” he said to a brand new class of probies. “We’re firefighters. We die a lot.” This new class is unfortunately going to have to find that out for themselves, and ultimately decide if they want to keep going. Let’s just hope that they find their answers more easily than Tommy Gavin.

Read more:

‘Rescue Me’ series finale: Were you satisfied?

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