On ''Rescue Me,'' Tommy wakes from a nightmare, then experiences some absurd but poignant moments with his family, coworkers, and new romantic interest

By Ben Spier
Updated August 30, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Denis Leary, Rescue Me
Credit: Michael Wong
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”Rescue Me”: Funny ha-ha, funny sad

The ghosts may have departed from Rescue Me, but the bad dreams remain. And last night’s opening sequence was a knockout, dramatizing the firefighter’s ultimate nightmare — losing comrades in the line of duty — with sweaty real-time vividness. (The scene took on an added, albeit unintended, poignancy by following on the heels of real-life FDNY fatalities at the Deutsche Bank fire near Ground Zero.) After the agonizing buildup came the wake-up twist: Tommy made a panicked phone call to the firehouse, only to get Sean Garrity, hung over after trying to drink his way back into the Gavin family. With that blend of mortal terror and comedy, the opener eased the way into one of the show’s more satisfying episodes of late, fleshing out the previous episode’s teaser setups into rich comic payoffs, tempered with a well-timed dash of pathos.

Virtually from the opening credits, the episode was crammed more than usual with bright comedic moments and razor-sharp comebacks. Even Tommy’s mutt had a chuckle-worthy cameo, with Tommy’s deadpan retort to a gruff short-order cook — ”He’s not a dog, he’s a wolf.” When Tommy asked Gina Gershon’s Valerie (finally, the mystery woman divulged her name) whether their relationship was doomed, she drily answered, ”Aren’t they all?” Perhaps the standout moment belonged to Franco and Richard, spying on Natalie’s date with a trucker-hatted artist. Daniel Sunjata and Cornell Womack displayed an easy chemistry as matched man-child coconspirators; Womack gave his Tourettic-but-shrewd character a sly knowingness with expertly calibrated toss-offs like his confession to misplacing Franco’s ring: ”I’m getting married.” Yet my pick for the most memorable one-liner belongs to the redoubtable John Scurti, who excelled as a one-man Greek chorus while riding shotgun on Tommy’s fire-engine joyride but also tweaked the series’ theme of faith with his chocolate-pizza-inspired effusion ”I’ve just seen the face of God!” Heresy, maybe…or reason to believe.

Amid the zingers, some of last night’s most striking moments interlaced comic byplay with somber undercurrents. One mood-shifting highlight: the juxtaposition of a raucous family AA meeting, where Mick’s exercise in apology devolved into recrimination and Tommy’s rekindled spirituality collided with his atheist siblings, with a serious one-on-one between Tommy and his pa. Besides shedding light on Tommy’s childhood timidity (and Dad’s dubious parenting skills), the tête-à-tête also cast a welcome spotlight on Charles Durning, who, for once, got extended screen time as an avowed atheist confronting his demons and his mortality. Equally, and surprisingly, poignant: Tommy’s reluctant reprise of his date from hell with Chief Feinberg’s unstable daughter. Glammed up but twitchy, Amy Sedaris brought a touching brittleness to her turn as a deeply disturbed bipolar patient. Her performance also provided sad insight into the hitherto-puzzling plot point of why the chief was so desperate to fix up his daughter with another troubled soul. Judging by the previews for next week’s episode, this plot strand promises intriguing complications as it plays out to the season finale.

Just as welcome as Durning’s and Sedaris’ appearances was the extended time given to supporting players previously limited to walk-ons. As previously mentioned, Gina Gershon finally got her chance to vamp with abandon, whether pithily dismissing Kevin Costner’s Open Range (”Too act-y”) or blithely confessing to her limited romantic attention span. (One can’t help also comparing her eroticized decor, complete with suggestive horns, with the design-catalog chic of Sheila’s apartment.) For his part, Larenz Tate’s Black Shawn went on a tear, sparring hilariously with Tommy over the violence of hockey — and then thrashing him in a street-hockey match. One can only hope for more fiery scraps between the two (and a possible alliance between Black Shawn, Mike, and Sean Garrity, united by their junior status in the firehouse).

What do you think? Is Tommy’s parsimony (e.g., buying a Jetta for a clearly disappointed Colleen) motivated by guilt over his tainted money? Is he worried more about Colleen getting pregnant or getting married to her rocker BF? (The previews suggest the latter possibility.) And, more forebodingly, does Charles Durning’s disquisition on mortality presage yet another death by season’s end?

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Rescue Me

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