Television: All Fired Up

On FX's smart Rescue Me, fire fighters are human too--not that they would ever want it spread around

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Denis Leary is not a guy you associate with putting out fires. He lights them--the small, contained blazes at the end of the cigarettes he chain-smoked through his angry, comic diatribes, like the one-man show No Cure for Cancer. Yet here he is, backstage at the set of his new TV series, in a New York City fire-department (F.D.N.Y.) uniform, picking at a plate of chicken with rice and beans, talking earnestly about his cousin Jeremiah Lucey, a real-life fireman in Worcester, Mass.

One night in 1999, Leary says, Lucey "was filling in for another guy as a favor. He was scheduled to drive. He went to another guy on the crew. He said, 'You know, I hate to drive. I want to go in. If we get a call, I want to switch with you.'" They got a call--a raging warehouse blaze that killed Lucey and five other men. "There was no regret in it," Leary says. "It was what he did. When he was alive, he'd tell his parents and anyone who asked, 'If I die, you're just going to have to deal with it.'"

Rescue Me (FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. E.T., debuts July 21) is about dealing with it--"it" being death, individual and multiple, the death that came for your buddies before and the death that may come on your next shift. There's nothing amusing about the show's inspirations--Leary's personal loss and the aftereffects for the F.D.N.Y. of losing 343 fire fighters on Sept. 11, 2001. And yet it is not just one of the most moving but also one of the funniest shows you will see this year: a sort of post-9/11 M*A*S*H.

Leary (also a co-writer and co--executive producer) stars as Tommy Gavin, an F.D.N.Y. veteran with a disturbing habit of talking to his cousin, fellow fire fighter and best friend Jimmy (James McCaffrey)--disturbing because Jimmy is dead, killed in the World Trade Center collapse. Jimmy left no remains behind but a finger--"My beer-opening finger," he complains during one imaginary visit with Tommy--and since then Tommy has been unable to go into a fire without taking a hit off a flask. (Tommy's alcoholism, curiously, did not dissuade Miller beer from a sponsorship deal that includes product placements and paying for the debut episode to air commercial free.) His marriage has fallen apart, and his wife is dating. Unwilling to let her go, he gathers his three kids around the kitchen table, breaks out a roll of bills and announces "a little game" wherein they can win cash by giving information about the new boyfriend. "But Mom doesn't want us to talk about that," his youngest daughter says. "I understand, sweetheart," replies Tommy. "That's why we have the money."

The comedian's work has always been a bitter mix of drama and humor. But Rescue Me is also about how an all-male subculture handles vulnerability and loss--or denies it. Tommy's squad brusquely refuses the help of a city psychotherapist; counseling here is a bigger taboo than in the Soprano family. Lou (John Scurti), a fire fighter who expresses his grief by writing poetry about 9/11, guards this secret closely, with good reason. When his wife finds out, even she begs him to destroy it. "I don't need you to share," she says. "I love you the way you are. So get rid of these."

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