Where there’s smoke, there’s ratings fire

Emmys new breed: Rescue Me

Best episode: “Inches” best epitomizes “Rescue Me’s” ability to mix intense subject matter, like the death of firefighter Billy Warren in the line of duty, with a contest to see who has the biggest penis in the firehouse.
Most complex character and why: Haunted by the ghost of his dead cousin, guilty about sleeping with his cousin’s widow, Sheila (Callie Thorne), and dealing with the bust-up of his marriage, Gavin still tries to do the right thing but he keeps digging himself further into a hole. He’s literally putting out fires at work and at home for his family, but not taking care of his own grief.
What should happen next season: Certainly the fallout from Gavin’s actions will be front and center when season two premieres Tuesday. According to exec producer Jim Serpico, Gavin is in exile. Transferred to a new firehouse, he tries desperately to find his wife and children and get back to his old crew.

When “Rescue Me” premiered on FX in summer 2004, the gritty drama about New York firefighters post-9/11 definitely hit a nerve.

Moving beyond the larger-than-life heroics of the job, the show’s often irreverent portrayal of the men — and one woman — in their professional and personal lives connected with auds, making it the highest-rated series (in the 18-49 demo) to debut on basic cable last year.

“We didn’t want to do ‘Backdraft,’ ” says exec producer Jim Serpico. “We also didn’t want to make a procedural. We wanted to make a character-driven show about real people and real lives.”

While “Rescue Me” certainly honors firefighters’ on-the-job courage, they’re all taken down a notch outside the firehouse. That’s especially true when it comes to Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin, a veteran firefighter who lost his cousin and best friend Jimmy Keefe in the Twin Towers.

Leary, exec produces and serves as head writer, after co-creating the show with Peter Tolan, brings his personal experiences to the series. He lost his own cousin and a childhood friend during a fire at the Worcester (Mass.) Cold Storage Warehouse fire in 1999, and later formed the Leary Firefighters Foundation, which has provided financial and other support for firefighters and their families including those affected by 9/11.

The firehouse is a testosterone-fueled environment, and the writers make no attempt to be politically correct. That’s not saying tough issues aren’t addressed, such as how homosexuality is accepted among the rank and file and how one particular fireman deals with the issue of absentee parenting.

The men misstep often — often reveling in their chauvinistic, even misogynist behavior when a woman joins the staff — but the series never glosses over their bad behavior. “The network allows us to really push the subject matter and go as far as we need to go to really tell it how it is for these firefighters,” Serpico says. “Even though our characters are very flawed and haunted by demons, we’re still rooting for them to make it.”

The same reality is brought to portraying Gotham, where “Rescue Me” is shot and which acts as a vital character. Like the firefighters who work in the shadow of the city’s visibly changed skyline, the show doesn’t shy away from the city’s vulnerability or controversial after-effects of the tragedy.

Storylines dealt with the festering antagonism that New York City cops feel toward firefighters. Some in the NYPD felt the efforts of those on the force went largely unnoticed in comparison to those of the firefighters. Then there’s Gavin’s sexual relationship with the widow of deceased fireman, a real-life scenario that received headlines and a segment on “Oprah.”

“The 9/11 tragedy haunts all Americans, especially New Yorkers,” says Serpico. “For FX to allow us to shoot where it really happened and where the real firefighters still work makes our show that much more believable.”

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