Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for upcoming episodes. Major spoilers for previously aired episodes.
Really, it's a miracle that Rescue Me's central character, Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) - the NYC firefighter who battles alcoholism, a dysfunctional Irish family, a rocky (understatement) relationship with his wife Janet (Andrea Roth), and an alcoholic daughter following her father footsteps into oblivion - hasn't been imprisoned for DUI.
Or isn't in line for a liver transplant (although I half expect that storyline to surface).
Season six (the series' penultimate) got off to a meh start. The first three episodes were frustratingly circular, with a glut of banter substituting for plot and character development. Tommy was still drinking, repeatedly falling off the wagon, and pretty much still misbehaving - an unlikable, unrelatable, worthless excuse for a human being.
FX has supplied seven episodes so far. Number five ("Blackout') debuts tomorrow (Tuesday, July 27) at 10p.
Don't give up. After the slow-moving start, Rescue Me picks up speed. By episode four ("Breakout"), the mojo was back. Aside from some glaring (but forgivable) plot holes, episodes four through seven are some of the most interesting in a long time.
Peter Gallagher joins the cast this season as the flirty, irreverent Catholic priest, Father Phil. After Tommy's near-death experience and a descent into the fires of hell, this season's theme so far has been redemption. Father Phil comes into Tommy's life as an unlikely therapeutic presence.
A couple of years ago Rescue Me took a bad, bad turn. It was the episode during which Tommy entered into the territory of the damned - when he raped his estranged wife Janet and walked away with a Satanic smile. The writers nearly damaged their character beyond repair. (The controversial episode was widely discussed at the time.)
No wonder Tommy found himself in firefighter hell during his near-death experience.
The challenge in the writers room: can they resurrect Tommy Gavin in the eyes of the viewer?
In the season launch, Tommy returns to life, resolved - for a nano-second anyway - to change his hard-drinking ways.
At one point, Tommy attempts (yet again) to reconnect with Janet. Tommy is all talk, typically tripping (again) over his words, whereas his demonstrative friend and fellow firefighter, Franco (Daniel Sunjata), is busy cooking, cleaning, plumbing, dispensing fashion advice, and otherwise making himself useful and valuable to Janet.
If the intent of the writers was to prime the audience to lose all interest in this narcissistic, one-dimensional, misogynistic character, to the point where no matter what heroics he may engage in going forward we won't care - well, they had achieved their objective.
Responding to Tommy's painfully awkward attempt to reconnect, Janet bitterly voices what a lot of viewers were likely feeling: "Oh my god, you have feelings. Oh, no, no wait, you've changed. No, no, your greatest hit - you're stopping drinking, for real this time."
Tommy claims his feelings for Janet are "stronger than they've ever been" but Janet responds..."So everything's going to be different as of right now?......we're here ten years later [after 9-11]. Who gives a sh*t about any of it..."
The problem for Rescue Me is that the central character, Tommy, was too often the least human, least appealing, least complex of the cast. Tommy's antics - the boozing, carousing and, yes, even rape - were initially explained away by his grief over 9-11.
But, as Joe Flint points out on Show Tracker: "Tommy uses his anger and grief over 9-11 to do what he wants to whomever he pleases with no regard for the consequences to himself or the people he purports to love."
Tonight, in episode five ("Blackout"), Tommy - depressed by the Franco/Janet flirtation - hits the bottle. Yet, the binge is revelatory and Tommy’s inferno of rage roars to the surface.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Tommy is finally starting to lurch past his grief and dysfunction. That might be too much to hope for, however, given the writers' addiction to an alcoholic Tommy. In the past, it seemed the writers didn't know how to let Tommy move on.
In upcoming eps feature baptism by alcohol, scatological humor, tense rescues, and some laugh-out-loud funny banter. The Italian restaurant scene (episode seven, "Forgiven") is a classic.
The conclusion of episode seven is one of the series' most poignant and fulfilling. Tommy Gavin is still Tommy - a hopelessly clueless cad - but at least we can see that he's feeling something.
Even with Tommy at his worst, Rescue Me has always been populated with an array of interesting supporting characters - Lou, Franco, Sean and now Damien (the newest firehouse probie), to name just a few. These are characters worth caring about, most with compelling storylines.
Damien (Mike Zegen) is Tommy's nephew, and his mom Sheila (Callie Thorne) wants Tommy to talk Damien into quitting the force. In an upcoming episode, Tommy misses a golden opportunity to encourage him to abandon his firefighting career and, instead, delivers a pep talk.
At the center of some of the show's most memorable scenes, Lou (John Scurti) is decent and lovable, the moral core. After his heart attack, he begins to re-evaluate his life and habits. But, according to the press materials (made available in advance of the season premiere), when Lou "fails to pull his weight in a burn Damien suffers the consequences."
While still entertaining, the Garrity/Siletti dumb-firefighter-duo shtick (played by Steven Pasquale and Mike Lombardi, respectively) has nevertheless worn thin. Occasionally, the writers provide a glimpse of a more complex Garrity, and it's evident that Steve Pasquale has a great deal more acting range than opportunities to express it.
And Sheila's, well.... she's still got that off-shoulder stylin' thing going on.
If Rescue Me sustains the momentum, in spite of the aforementioned weaknesses, the final episodes of season six will be one heck of a ride.