Thursday, August 04, 2005

American Waugh

Denis Leary

THE 9/11 FILES. After all the bluster and hype about Over There, it's time to focus on what really is the best series on television, a show that could easily be named Over Here. Denis Leary's Rescue Me is probably the finest work yet produced for the small screen. The credit belongs to Leary because he writes, produces, and stars in the show and does all three jobs with brilliance and subtlety. The view he gives us of New York firefighters is comical, pitiless, scathing, and yet -- to use a word much abused in recent times -- realistic. In the landscape of Leary's creation, firefighters are dumb as rocks, juvenile in their relations with women, borderline sociopathic in their personal lives, and ridiculous when they attempt to explain their stupid behaviors to civilians. They are also the men who charge into burning buildings to save anyone and everyone inside. Despite a long string of attempts by Martin Scorsese and HBO, the holy grail of a riveting story based on asshole characters had seemed unattainable to me. Somehow, Leary seems to achieve this impossible goal with ease. He's not a stand-up comic who does other things. He's a master.

Tommy Gavin, the character Leary plays in Rescue Me, is selfish, choleric, violent, abusive to women, friends, and family, almost incapable of self control in any setting, and -- on top of this, not because of this -- irretrievably damaged by the events of 9/ll, in which he lost firefighter family and friends in large numbers. I didn't see the first season, but it hardly matters. What he succeeds in showing us is that there are men for whom every minute not spent in the life-and-death situations they were born to face is simply killing time, including marriage, fatherhood, and everything else the rest of us consider all of life.

The miracle of Rescue Me is that Leary's writing and acting seduce us into accepting the appalling personal frailties of firefighters and even understanding them. He doesn't use music to gloss over the rough spots or to highlight the heroism. He uses humor, an intuitive razorlike skill with dialogue and delivery, and patience -- the willingness to let the pathos or absurdity of any situation make itself felt over time rather than under trick lighting or ham-handed theatrics. To find a counterpart to the writing in these scripts, one must look all the way back to Evelyn Waugh, who possessed the sublime nastiness to inform us of the death of Lord Tangent (son of Lady Circumference) in a dependent clause dozens of pages after the glancing shot of a starter's pistol dealt him a mortal blow. That's the esthetic at work here. Big events can be trivial, and trivial events enormous. Gavin's jilted girlfriend confronts him in front of the firehouse and threatens to scream in order to embarrass him. He tells her to go ahead. She lets loose like the heroine of a horror movie and -- eventually -- firefighters come outside, greet her merrily, and disappear inside. None of them ask Tommy for an explanation afterwards. Emotional fireworks are routine and unimportant here. But a firefighter who overhears his son having gay sex is stunned into speechless fury -- not by the sex, but by the discovery that his son is not, as he had been promised, the "man" of the couple. In Rescue Me, all depends on the perspective of the lunkhead characters, who talk with one another in stark but stupid terms about even the most intimate and embarrassing incidents in their lives.

A mentally challenged firefighter develops a morbid fear that his penis is somehow deadly after two successive girlfriends die. His supervisor in counseling him begins by remarking that the firefighter has a small sliver of brain matter floating around somewhere in his skull and hopes the observation doesn't give offense. "No offense taken," responds the young man, without the least change of expression. He is still waiting for advice, which comes quickly. The problem, the supervisor tells him, is his dating pool, which should be drained dry, filled in, and paved over with asphalt.

"Then there's nothing the matter with my cock?"

"No. Get back out there."

The next step is absolutely typical of Rescue Me, which includes in its regular cast a hallucinated Jesus who haunts Leary's character but is refreshingly tongue-tied about the meaning of life's constant tragedies. Jesus torments Leary for a buffoonish performance at an AA meeting, but there's nobody on hand to chastise the dumb firefighter when he accompanies a Vicodin-addicted colleague to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and discovers that it's an "ocean of pussy," a panoply of ex-models, hookers, and party girls, all vulnerable to the charms of a firefighter willing to make up stories about a crack-addicted past. Which he immediately proceeds to do.

In fact, every single kind of bad and unfair treatment of women is on constant display in Rescue Me, and the firefighters' understanding of this unending quest in their lives never rises above the level of eighth grade boys. But then Tommy Gavin gives mouth to mouth to a little boy who has stopped breathing after receiving third degree burns to his face, and he registers no emotion when another firefighter tells him the boy's lips are still glued to his own. The show then resists the temptation to play for sympathy when Gavin goes to the hospital to sit by the critically burned boy's bed. Instead, when the mother leaves for a moment, Jesus appears in her chair, ducks the question about what such tragedies mean, and offers to "put in a word" for the boy's life if Gavin will reconsider his dismissal of God.

In response to the proposition, Gavin says, "I want full use of the hands."

Nothing is sacred in Rescue Me. Not even the PC standards of our day. A supervisor berates a female probationer who disregarded orders at a fire by calling her a "stupid twat." Predictably, she threatens legal action when he refuses to apologize. Then she is made to realize that namecalling is a part of the life of a firefighter, and the offender makes everyone pay for his crime by refusing to lie about what he said. All the firefighters, including the "victimized" woman, are sentenced to sensitivity training.

That's how the show strikes me overall -- as a kind of sensitivity training about a kind of man who has become unfashionable and even despised, despite the fact that we need and depend upon him. He's rude, crude, often drunk, frequently obtuse, coarse in even the most rudimentary social occasions, but when the terrible thing happens, he's the one who will disregard the danger and battle his way into further danger to pull our sorry asses out of the fire.

I'm getting the lesson because it's being delivered with such flawless timing and unflinching honesty. I urge all of you to enroll for the rest of the course, no matter how long it lasts.

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