I've sussed out how some of you work: You'll refuse to watch a quality TV series for free (or semi-free on cable/satellite), but put a season or two out on DVD and you're suddenly all over it. You know, because viewing a DVD is more like screening a movie, not a lowly plebian exercise like (sniff, snort) watching television. "That box over in the corner? I only use it to watch independent films and documentaries. Oh, and Saved by the Bell seasons one and two is simply magnificent; Screech certainly emerged as a coup de maitre in the later chapters. More Chardonnay?"
Now that you're back, allow me to reintroduce you to Rescue Me (on the FX channel), the absolute best drama and comedy on television right now. Numero uno. Ultra-mega. There is none higher. Are we clear? Don't come up to me and ask, "There's nuthin' good on TV now, is there?" I won't be held responsible for my actions.
Rescue Me, which pun fully intended caught fire last summer, comes from the creators of ABC's excellent-thus-doomed 2001-02 series The Job, Denis Leary and Peter Tolan. The Job was about morally ambiguous New York City cops whose personal and professional lives were torn apart as much as held together by booze, drugs, sex, and chaos and it was funny as hell, within broadcast television confines. Superficially, Rescue Me is more of the same, only with NYC firefighters instead of cops and pushing the far looser limits of late-night cable. Between this, The Shield, and Nip/Tuck, the only thing separating FX from HBO some nights is the commercials and frequency of Van Damme movies.
Season one followed the darkly comic and painfully dramatic freefall of NYFD firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary, giving the performance of his career) and his crew of nearly equally screwed-up men who would sooner punch you out than admit to personal problems, addictions, nightmares of 9/11, or any other girly hang-ups. Tommy's wife (Andrea Roth) had kicked him out, though he moved just across the street; in the season finale, she and the kids sold the house and disappeared without a trace better to live on the lam than put up with Tommy's possessiveness and boozing any longer.
Season two picks up three months later: Tommy's drinking himself further into oblivion while calling in legal favors to search for his family, dealing with pregnant "girlfriend" Sheila (Callie Thorne), the widow of his firefighter cousin and best friend Jimmy (James McCaffrey, turning up in ghost/hallucination form) who died in the Twin Towers and, since being transferred after a heated blow-up with the crew at his metro firehouse last season, enduring mind-numbing boredom at a new station in suburban Staten Island, where fires apparently never spark. ("Why don't we light that car over there on fire? That'll kill a couple of hours.")
Back at the old firehouse, the crew isn't much better off without Tommy's angst: Lone female firefighter Laura (Diane Farr, a Job alum) still gets no respect from the boys club; Franco (Daniel Sunjata) is slowly recovering from last season's Tommy-caused accident and developing a pain-killer addiction; firehouse vets Lou (John Scurti) and Jerry (Jack McGee) are the only ones fighting to get Tommy back on Ladder 62, since his "new guy" replacement Sully (Lee Tergesen) is seemingly too good to be true. (He is, as will be hysterically revealed in the season's third episode.)
Again, check out the season one Rescue Me DVD first. You could jump in now, but a series this well written, realistic, heart-rending, and funny deserves to have every frame seen. Rescue Me is not only as good as TV gets, it's as good as any storytelling medium could aspire to be. We're clear now, right?
Bill Frost is a writer for Salt Lake City Weekly.