The Long Journey of Denis Leary's 'Rescue Me'


This may not be what you’d expect from a comic whose latest stand-up tour includes a goofy Irish drinking song which takes swipes at Michael Flatley and the Catholic Church. But Denis Leary’s Rescue Me is one of the most important Irish American cultural artifacts of recent decades, right up there with Angela’s Ashes, and, yes, even Riverdance.

Anyone interested in telling the history of Irish Catholics in 21st Century America could not possibly ignore all of the crucial themes – family, the church, 9/11 – the show has explored, at times with brutal honesty, dark humor and occasionally, with a bit too much goofiness.

Indeed, now we just have to hope that the show, which had its season premiere on the FX cable channel this week, goes out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Leary and the rest of the Rescue Me crew are officially done creating the show. The current season, the sixth, will wrap up later this year. The show will take a break from the airwaves before it returns with its seventh and final season, which will wrap up in September 2011 – which, of course, coincides with the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks which still haunt the firefighters in Tommy Gavin’s firehouse, and inspired Rescue Me in the first place.

The question, now is this: Why is Rescue Me more than just an entertaining television show? Well, for those with an interest in all things Irish, Rescue Me right now is the most prominent slice of popular culture which deals with the Irish American experience.

Movies from The Gangs of New York to The Brothers McMullen get a lot of attention for how they portray the Irish in America. But a movie is never much longer than two hours. For six years, now, Leary’s show has mined the deep, dark soul of Irish America. The view is not always pretty.

Family, for example, is a crucial aspect of Rescue Me as well as the Irish American experience. Well, suffice it to say, the Gavin family is more than a little bit dysfunctional. As this season opens, Tommy Gavin is shot by his uncle following a long evening of cathartic boozing. Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

Which raises an inevitable question: Does Rescue Me dabble in stereotypes? Of course it does. It’s hard to find any book, movie or TV show about ethnic life which doesn’t.

After all, Frank McCourt’s dad was a drunk and Pete Hamill’s gleaming memoir was even entitled A Drinking Life. Does this make these books any less brilliant?

But moreso than the crazy uncles and excessive drinking, perhaps the most important part of Rescue Me is Tommy Gavin’s struggle with religion. It is here that Rescue Me most painfully mirrors Irish America’s broader struggles to reconcile its Catholic heritage with a harsh, modern world. Gavin pretty much has no use for religion. Which doesn’t matter because he still struggles to comprehend the ways of God, and why bad things – such as 9/11 – seem to happen to (relatively) good people. Season six even opens with Tommy’s vision of the afterlife. That this vision is grim and frightening rather than soothing matters little. Tommy is televised proof that there is no such thing as a lapsed Catholic. Even if Tommy Gavin – like not a few Irish Americans – is skeptical about religion, it is still in your cultural DNA.

In a recent interview, Leary discussed bringing Rescue Me to a close and he said he is aware that viewers will watch the show’s end with much scrutiny. After all, The Sopranos ending was one of the most analyzed moments in TV history.

Leary would not say much about the show’s ending, but did add that right before it concludes there is an important twist.

This sounds troubling to me. After all, Rescue Me is a very good TV show but over the years it has had its share of off notes. So, here’s some old fashioned Irish advice for Denis Leary: Don’t try anything too fancy! Stick to what you do best. After all, this has produced an unforgettable look into the Irish American soul right up there with Frank McCourt, Pete Hamill and even Eugene O’Neill.

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