"Rescue Me," which returns to FX for its third season tonight at 10, has the perfect theme song in the Von Bondies' "C'mon, C'mon." Toggling between questions such as ``Will I ever learn" and the mocking call of "c'mon, c'mon," the garage rocker captures the show's biting sarcasm and crushing grief. It evokes the inner turmoil of the characters, particularly Denis Leary's angry firefighter Tommy Gavin, who ``can see the blood of a thousand men who have come and gone," as the song puts it.
"C'mon, C'mon" opens "Rescue Me" as fair warning of the psychic intensity that will follow. As fans know, this New York series is a cauldron of angst, hostility, and catastrophe -- a brilliant cauldron, but still. Most shows operate on half the amount of dramatic fuel in ``Rescue Me." Tommy isn't just beset by a troubled marriage: He's caught in an unending mire of tragedy, from his raging alcoholic slips to the death of his son. This season, Tommy will face a series of betrayals and twists that promise yet another run of fiery and incident-filled episodes.
"Rescue Me" isn't directly about 9/11 anymore, although Tommy's decline began with his 9/11 losses, which included the death of his cousin. But with its characters' unresolving spirals into despair and their eruptions of violence, the show definitely qualifies as a product of the terror attacks. It comes out of a time, a city, and a sensibility plagued by chaos and irrationality, and it offers no clear alternative of faith or trust.
Indeed, Tommy's attempts to lean on Catholicism have provoked some of the show's sharpest satire. His conversations with Jesus last season were absurd; and this season, his older daughter's announcement that she's born again is a hoot: ``It's the hot new thing at school," she says.
After all, this is Denis Leary, and so there has to be comedy amid the endless pain. Tommy is always ready with a zinger, as are his buddies at the firehouse, razzing one another like merciless teen boys. When one of them dates an older woman, played by Susan Sarandon, the guys toss off ``How's your old lady" jokes aplenty. The writers upend the guys, too, including Tommy, as they reveal the firefighters' fragile masculinity. Referring to a money collection for a no-smoking contest, Tommy becomes obsessed with changing the word ``kitty" to ``can" because Sheila (Callie Thorne) thinks ``kitty" is too gay.
The mood swings from buffoonery to desperation are a large part of what defines ``Rescue Me." One minute, we're laughing at Tommy's sister Maggie (Tatum O'Neal), who treats her boyfriend like a dog (``Stay. Good boy."). And the next minute we're in the gutter with Kenny (John Scurti), who's drinking himself numb after being swindled by a porn actress. One minute Tommy is joking with his incarcerated uncle (Lenny Clarke), the next he's pounding futilely on a dead little girl's chest to revive her, lost in a fit of sorrow about his own son.
For viewers, it's hard to relax -- an effect the writers clearly aim for, to convey the tempo of a firefighter's life as it jumps from calm to alarm in seconds. With all the tonal shiftiness, the writers also simulate a post-traumatic explosiveness, something the actors, particularly Leary, make both affecting and frightening. Sadly, Leary has never been nominated for an acting Emmy for his extraordinary work in ``Rescue Me."
This season, not one of the characters seems to be sleeping with the right person. I won't reveal any surprises , except to say that all the pairings in the first three episodes are oddly, humorously, and, at the end of episode 3, touchingly daring. The changing-partners theme is a little farcical -- but darkly so, with heart-wrenching consequences. ``Rescue Me" isn't for everyone, particularly those who find Leary's fuming a little too convincing. But it's certainly a TV gem, rough but gleaming.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.