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Inner fires raged

Leary’s ‘Rescue Me’ captured psychological trauma of time

In “Rescue Me,’’ Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin experienced emotional extremes from the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. The show ends its seven-season run tonight. In “Rescue Me,’’ Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin experienced emotional extremes from the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. The show ends its seven-season run tonight. (Craig Blankenhorn/Fx)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 7, 2011

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Thinking of scripted TV and 9/11, the face of Kiefer Sutherland comes to mind. “24’’ was a remarkably timely portrait of a man and a country’s leaders willing to do anything - torture, murder, grunt relentlessly - to keep us safe. And with their groups of survivors in mysterious landscapes, sci-fi shows such as “Lost’’ and “The Walking Dead’’ have also become a critical part of the cultural wake of the attacks. They’ve indirectly but quite vividly captured our collective disorientation and paranoia.

But FX’s “Rescue Me,’’ which ends its seven-season run tonight at 10, has been the most aggressive in exploring the psychological remains of the attacks. Ultimately, it’s Denis Leary’s combustible face - his raving hostility and cynicism, his challenged ideals, his unremitting sorrow - that best evokes the inner turmoil of living in the shadow of that September day 10 years ago. While “24’’ or “Sleeper Cell’’ relied on the genre suspense of terror cells and homeland security breaches, “Rescue Me’’ stayed stunningly close to its characters’ hearts and minds - their spiritual crises, their romantic upheavals, their emotional extremes. Like the 1946 movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,’’ it latched onto the complex aftermath, far beyond the battlefield action.

“Normal’s dead and buried underneath ground zero,’’ Leary’s Tommy Gavin said to his then ex-wife Janet (Andrea Roth) in the seventh season premiere a few months ago. At that moment, he could have been stating the underlying subject of the entire series: The post-traumatic characters in “Rescue Me’’ were no longer able to take things for granted. They were no longer secure in their faith.

The show was primarily about the traditional male psyche and its inability to deal with these new, powerful emotions. It was about the guys of Ladder 62, who could rush into burning buildings, but were unequipped to face their own sorrow and confusion after 9/11. They were trapped within their masculine suits of armor. Sometimes their emotional infantilism was funny - so much of the comedy on “Rescue Me’’ came out of the juvenile firehouse banter. They were “bromantic’’ before “bromance’’ was popularized. But their emotional immaturity was also, at times, an occasion for pathos, particularly in terms of Tommy’s drinking and parenting. Alas, the women on “Rescue Me’’ - excluding Maura Tierney’s Kelly - were narrowly drawn, although Callie Thorne’s Sheila had moments of profound wisdom amid her shrewish insanity.

Leary has been unfailingly honest in this role, and his Emmy nominations in 2006 and ’07 were well-deserved. He introduced us to Tommy’s demons one by one, showing us how Tommy hurt others but never as much as he hurt himself. He took Tommy to extremes of hatefulness - with volcanic rage, biting sarcasm, and cowardly cruelty toward his lovers and best friends - yet never wound up being entirely unsympathetic. Some have said that Leary was just doing his regular shtick, and not acting. Not the case.

The overall tone and pace of the show seemed to mimic Tommy’s tormented sensibility, as it jumped from irony to tragedy and back again. It was sometimes dizzying, the way the mood of “Rescue Me’’ would swing from firehouse buffoonery to alcoholic grimness. But that’s Tommy, and that’s the tempo of a fireman’s life, from a whisper to full-on alarm in a matter of moments. That was the pace and tone of 9/11. A steadier narrative would have undermined the content of the show.

Co-created by Leary and Peter Tolan, “Rescue Me’’ stayed on the air too long - there were entire seasons during the series run that seemed to repeat story lines ad infinitum as Tommy bounced between Janet and Sheila, or Tommy bounced between drunkenness and sobriety. By season 4, you could see the wear that comes with keeping such an event-filled and dramatically explosive series on the air too long. When the hero of a show always seems to put out his emotional fires with gasoline, a little tends to go a long way. Excellent episodes always arrived, some of them surreal and inventive, but they were too often separated by filler.

Tonight’s finale, though, is just right. No, it’s not going to enter the series finale Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of “Six Feet Under’’ and “Newhart.’’ It’s just a nice winding down of years of craziness, one that toys with viewers’ expectations affectionately. I won’t give away anything here, except to say that I think most of the show’s fans will be both saddened and heartened by the episode. It’s a fitting farewell to an unforgettable time and place.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

RESCUE ME Starring: Denis Leary, John Scurti, Andrea Roth, Callie Thorne, Daniel Sunjata, Steven Pasquale, Natalie Distler, Michael Lombardi, Larenz Tate

On: FX

Time: Tonight, 10-11