2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Friday, August 13, 2004

Rescue Me

Well, I feel kind of bad, since I’m always the guy who encourages others to post and I haven’t posted anything in ages. Unfortunately, two weeks of working 10 hour days supporting a new software application is hardly conducive to watching any movies (I got a stack of unwatched GreenCine DVDs sitting on my coffee table). That, and the fact that only a few films of any interest have been trickling into Madison lately has largely precluded me from writing. Though I’ll be seeing the documentary Control Room on Sunday afternoon, unless I’m hit on the head and dragged into Alien Vs. Predator, I won’t be seeing much else this weekend (there is however, a great big microbrew festival in Madison tomorrow afternoon...hmmm, beer...but I digress). So what to write about? Well, how about my favorite new television show of the summer.

That would be the new FX show Rescue Me, which after four, hour long episodes shows real promise. The show is a comedy-drama centering around the character of veteran firefighter Tommy Gavin, (played by executive producer, writer, and series co-creator Dennis Leary, who again teams up with Jim Serpico and Peter Tolan after the demise of their short-lived ABC sitcom The Job) and his fellow members of FDNY Engine 62 Company. Though set in the here and now, 9/11 unsurprisingly continues to cast a pall over all the characters, who hide their devastating emotional traumas under a blanket of cynicism, sarcasm, gallows humor, machismo, sexual bravado, and deep, deep denial (not to mention booze). The result, a hilariously profane and caustic comedy which draws the you in and then sucker punches the viewer with a wallop of pain and despair. The focus of the show, Tommy, is the embodiment of all these traits.

Tommy is just barely hanging on, having personally known 60 of the firefighters who died at Ground Zero, among whom were four members of his own firehouse, including his best friend and cousin Jimmy (the usage of the Von Bondies’s song “C’mon C’mon” as the show’s theme song is very apt given this set-up). Hiding his grief and guilt behind a tough-guy facade,Tommy is a former recovering alcoholic sliding back into self-destructive drinking (ironic for a television show sponsored by Miller Beer), needing a nip from the bottle to do his job, facing a disintegrating marriage (his estranged wife, frustrated by Tommy’s emotional distance, just wants to get out of their Irish-Italian neighborhood, where everyone either was related to, married, to, or knew a firefighter who died on 9/11) and who is haunted (psychically at least) by the ghosts of those who died on 9/11, especially the gregarious Jimmy, and those he failed to save while on the job.

While the device of the living having conversations with the dead is becoming more and more common in American television, I think that Rescue Me uses the device especially well, since the appearances of the ghosts are well timed and usually used to great effect (I’ve noticed that they have been used more sparingly in the later episodes, most likely because the focus of the show has expanded to include more and more of the ensemble cast). Jimmy is the most prevalent of the ghosts and most active in the narrative, frequently acting as Tommy’s sounding board and conscience, while retaining the attitude of the living firefighters (bemoaning his lost finger, which he used to open his cans of beer; worrying over his widowed wife). The other ghosts are either just disturbing (the burnt children, the Asian teenager who died in the traffic accident in the second episode and who just pleads to Tommy that she “wants to go home”) or appropriately haunting, literally following Tommy around like some sort of grim parade (in the fourth episode, when Tommy sees his hospitalized teenager daughter sitting among the ghosts in the church, is just chilling).

This would be all for naught if it was not for the performance of Dennis Leary. Now, I’ve always liked Leary as a comedian and actor, and admittedly the character plays to his strengths, since he long ago mastered profane, caustic humor and seething rage, but we are a long way from rants about Nyquil. Leary invests his character with pathos, but avoids devolving into a loathsome variety of self-pity or sentimentality (though his character is often self-pitying and sentimental). Teetering on the brink of a total meltdown, he is usually unable or unwilling to articulate his thoughts and feelings, either fumbling in his efforts to communicate with others or lacing his commentary with off-putting hostility, but occasionally, he does manage to speak from the heart, though it is often muffled by his tough guy persona (the final monologue to the FD therapist in the pilot episode). I personally think that this is easily the best performance of Leary’s career.

The other members of Engine 62 are no less damaged and the show is slowly expanding it’s scope to encompass much more than Tommy and his family. One of the major developing story lines involves Chief Reilly (Jack McGee), a pugnacious, middle-aged man with a deep gambling problem, who takes umbrage at a recently retired gay firefighter who publicly outs several firefighters who died during 9/11, leading to a possibly career ending incident. Lt. Kenneth “Lou” Shea (John Scurti) is another 9/11 survivor, and who is secretly writing really, really bad poetry, much to the horror and embarrassment of his wife, in an attempt to reach some sort of catharsis. Franco Riviera (Daniel Sunjata) is the company’s ladiesman, but finds his life changing unexpectedly (what is now looking to be the weakest of the storylines, but that is just a hunch). Dimwitted Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale) provides a lot of the comic relief, as does the probie, Mike Siletti (Michael Lombardi), who finds himself in a quite awkward and absurd situation after saving someone from a fire for the first time. Like all successful shows, Rescue Me has a large and talented ensemble (I really have not gone into Tommy’s expanded family), and the characters, all of whom are deeply flawed, are slowly revealing themselves to be complex creations. For a show about firefighters in a post-9/11 world, the creators have avoided heroic cliches and exciting fire-fighting antics, without minimizing the heroism of people who are just doing their job.

Rescue Me has a nice, gritty texture, complimented by unobtrusive hand-held camerawork; a dour color palette dominated by blues, grays, and browns; a fine eye for on the job and local detail (Leary’s own cousin was a firefighter who died in the line of duty, which prompted him to start the Leary’s Firefighter Foundation, giving him a connection to the subject matter); and location shooting utilizing various New York City environs. Once in a while, the filmmakers even throw in some stylistic panache, such as split-screens, which they like to employ in a comedic fashion, or subtitles which reveal what the taciturn characters are really trying to say. Like such FX shows as The Shield and Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me makes liberal usage of cable’s more relaxed decency standards, perhaps more so than the other shows (OK, maybe not as much as Nip/Tuck, from what I’ve seen). The rapid-fire dialogue is laced with profanity (I’m just waiting for FX to allow the usage of “fuck,” which should be coming soon, by my estimation), there is rampant sex and nudity , and the various victims are depicted in an realistically gruesome fashion. I do have one complaint concerning the way the filmmakers have shaped Rescue Me. All four of the episodes so far have followed exactly the same pattern: the first two-thirds of the episode are played largely for comedy, before the episode turns more serious in the last third, concluding with a musical montage encapsulating the despair of the various characters. I have to admit that these montages are often quite moving, and the episodes so far have been excellent, but I’m hoping that the creators do not fall into a creative rut.

After the massacre of most of my favorite television shows over the past two seasons, I’m elated to find another show that I can consider “appointment television,” and that is worthy of my time. I hope that Rescue Me can consistently maintain a high level of quality so I will actually have something to watch next season. So far, so good.