Saying goodbye to FX's Rescue Me: TV's only 9/11 centered series departs days before the 10th anniversary
It proceeded with the precision of a finely-tuned heist, with details so surprising and brilliant they seem lifted right from a Hollywood movie.
So why, in the ten years since terrorists leveled the World Trade Center with two hijacked airlines on Sept. 11, 2001, has there been just one successful American TV series based on its aftermath?
That questions arises now because the show, FX's brilliantly dark comedy Rescue Me, will air its last episode at 10 p.m. Wednesday -- four days before TV plunged into an orgy of documentaries and remembrances of the worst terrorist attack carried out on U.S. soil.
And series co-creator Peter Tolan has a typically cynical and blunt explanation for why no one else in television followed his and creative partner/star Denis Leary's lead: "I don't think a mass audience wants to be reminded of it, or they don't want to dwell on it," said Tolan, suddenly serious after a raucous Los Angeles press conference in July where he took off his pants for a roomful of TV critics.
"When we were at the Smithsonian, I said that we were sort of ahead of our time in doing this, and that maybe once enough time has passed — I don't think it's the 10th anniversary, but maybe five years, 10 years from now — there may actually be another examination of this," said the executive producer, who attended a ceremony at the museum where they delivered items from the show for an exhibit, including the costume of Leary's character, Tommy Gavin.
"It'll be like a Vietnam or something like that, where 20, 25 years later, you're starting to see these examinations of it."
If you can't wait that long, Rescue Me offers a chance to get started early, winding up the longest treatise on post traumatic stress disorder that may ever have aired on American television.
As we met Leary's foulmouthed, in-your-face firefighter Gavin in the summer of 2004, he was already a hot mess; taking outsized risks, addicted to pills and alcohol, and tormented by hallucinations of visits from his cousin, a fellow firefighter who died in the twin towers.
Later, Tolan and Leary kept piling on the heartbreak. Gavin's young son died in a hit-and-run accident; his cop brother, who had briefly begun a relationship with his (separated) wife, was killed in a shooting; his father died while the two watched a baseball game together; his firefighter nephew, the son of the cousin killed at 9/11, got a traumatic brain injury at a fire and lost his faculties.
And there is one more hit coming at the start of Wednesday's episode. A beloved character will die. Again.
"Because we were dealing with grief (from the beginning), it was a great thing for all the characters on the show to have to deal with again," said Leary, who had coffee mugs made up for the cast and crew reaffirming Rescue Me's big themes: Love, Sex, Death and Life. "Staying true to the nature of the show, it was important that somebody or somebodies were going to have to pay the price."
Wednesday's episode, "Ashes," deals with the fallout from that tragedy, reaffirming in the process what helps us all survive: friendship, family and service to a cause greater than yourself. To be frank, too many fans of great TV have slept on how cool this series is. (Here's a glimpse of Leary talking about the show in earlier times; comments from a 2008 visit to the show in Queens, click here)
Didn't help when story lines tipped over the edge, as when Gavin basically raped his wife when the two were separated — showing just how dysfunctional their on-again, off-again, on-again marriage could be (the two renewed their wedding vows in last week's episode).
But there also was ace work from recurring stars ranging from ER alum Maura Tierney (a former flame whose cancer treatment mirrored the actress' real-life struggle with breast cancer) to Tatum O'Neal, whom I met playing Gavin's alcoholic sister on a Rescue Me set in Queens days before she would get busted for buying crack cocaine blocks from her home in Manhattan. Talk about life imitating art. (To see another tidbit from my New York story, click here)
Michael J. Fox won an Emmy playing a wheelchair-bound fling of Gavin's wife, and memorable moments came from Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Charles Durning, Gina Gershon and Peter Gallagher. See my interview with Sarandon on her role by clicking here.
It turns out, the same thing that helped the characters survive such desperate times also helped the series. "Being the only piece of popular entertainment to spring from 9/11 … the real reason (we survived) is because of the humor of it," Tolan said. "It was an earth-shattering, life-changing event for so many people. But because there was so much humor in it, this is how we really deal with things. This is how people move forward."
Which brings us to the ending. How will Leary and company cap off seven seasons of remembering the fallen, surviving tragedy and keeping us all focused on the real heroes of 9/11?
"Ultimately, we came to realize the idea of the show was 'Will a man who has survived this great tragedy actually survive it or not?' " said Tolan, noting that they considered having Gavin sit down in the middle of a fire or walk into the ocean for a more ambiguous ending, only to nix all of that. "In the face of seven seasons of television, you don't want to say no to that question."
I've seen the ending, and it's worthy of Rescue Me's rich legacy; right down to the visions of dead friends helping ease the pain of living.
Rest easy, gentlemen (and a few ladies). After seven years of keeping 9/11 ever-present for us all, you've earned a break.