Leaning on 9/11 for TV drama is a tricky business. If writers aren't dunking their characters into the sap of maudlin self-pity, they're building stiff action heroes who save the world moments after leaving the Mattel factory. So it's a small miracle that FX's "Rescue Me" skirts those obvious pitfalls of creating a weekly series out of the ruins of ground zero. Thanks largely to the presence of blowhard-par-excellence Denis Leary, who could be neither self-pitying nor unambiguously heroic if his life or his pack of cigarettes depended on it, it's one of the best series of the year.
The strange thing about writing about "Rescue Me," which premieres tonight at 10, is that it can too easily look generic and hokey on paper. Set in a New York City firehouse, it's steeped in the blue-collar macho culture that has thrived on mainstream TV longer than Andy Sipowicz has been losing loved ones on "NYPD Blue." Created by Leary and Peter Tolan, the team who developed a similar guy's-guys ensemble in the more comic "The Job" on ABC, "Rescue Me" delivers an instantly familiar group of tough-talking, Irish-American types who are the antithesis of the "CSI" brainiacs. The show's FDNY includes the hazed rookie, the troubled veteran, the grouchy Chief Reilly (Jack McGee), and the ladies' men who spend their down time pondering the mysteries of metrosexuality.
"It's like straight regular guys who get face lifts," one of them explains awkwardly in the gay-themed second episode, before indulging in a metrosexual luxury that leaves him with an inconvenient irritation. What's even more potentially stale about the series is that, like "Six Feet Under" in its more self-conscious moments, "Rescue Me" features a cast of visiting ghosts. Leary's Tommy Gavin has regular heart-to-hearts with his firefighter cousin and best friend, Jimmy Keefe (James McCaffrey), who died on 9/11 and whose image disappears when other people enter the room. Tommy also sees dead people who are strangers he couldn't rescue from fires, who haunt him with his own sense of failure. An overused device these days, the inclusion of ghosts can play like a writer's shortcut, a too-convenient means of access to a character's subconscious.
And yet, and yet. "Rescue Me" works remarkably well, particularly after the first episode, which gets clogged as it establishes too much too quickly. There are many funny moments in the show, including a few 9/11 jokes and a subtitled conversation in Episode 3 that clarifies the subtext in the banal phone exchange between Tommy and his father.
But "Rescue Me" isn't a comedy. Most of the jokes are a respite from the show's true focus -- the psychological fallout of fighting fire, or waiting around to fight fire, after 9/11. And each hour is dominated by the sad drama of Tommy, who is burning up before our eyes. The title refers to him as much as to any of the victims trapped in smoke-filled structures. Sober for 14 months, Tommy has started drinking hard again. Separated from his wife, he torments himself by spying on her and milking their three children for information about her new boyfriend.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the beginning of Tommy's decline, and Leary and Tolan treat him with the insight they might bring to a Vietnam veteran. He carries the weight of survivor's guilt, grief, and futility on his shoulders. He's post-traumatic but too wedded to cynicism to accept and address his own problems. "I couldn't open up, I wasn't emotionally available, blah blah blah," he says self-mockingly to Jimmy's ghost about the end of his marriage. His wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), has a stronger diagnosis, telling him he's a guy who's "walking around like everything's fine when you're dead inside."
In one of the show's emblematic moments, a therapist shows up at the firehouse. "I'm here to help if anyone would like to talk," she says of 9/11, upon which the men slowly file out of the room. These guys are hurting, but they are staunchly unwilling to remove the suits of armor that have protected them, even as they feel trapped inside them. Kenny "Lou" Shea (John Scurti) writes poetry about the falling towers as therapy, but he keeps his hobby secret, acutely aware that in the world of the firehouse, "poetry" is a dirty word.
The ensemble acting is strong all round, and driven by Leary, whose stockade of teeth-baring rage keeps his slipping and sliding character out of pathos. Roth is a worthy opponent as Tommy's wife, and McCaffrey makes his buddy-buddy ghost a tad annoying, so that he's more like Alan Rickman in "Truly, Madly, Deeply" than Patrick Swayze in "Ghost." And as the series develops, McGee brings unexpected depth to the chief, a firefighter who has let his emotional link to the FDNY brotherhood undermine his life.
Leary has talked to the press about what led him to create "Rescue Me." Not only has he been surrounded by firefighting friends and family all his life, but he lost a cousin and a friend in the 1999 Worcester warehouse fire. But even if you didn't know about his personal stake, you'd probably sense it in the show, which is a compelling mixture of respect, humor, and heart.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.