Rescue Me was a darkly funny, utterly crass comedy/drama about a group of New York City firefighters dealing with survivor's guilt in the years following 9/11. It was created by and stars Denis Leary, who also served as head writer. It aired on the F/X network, which had recently scored a huge hit with The Shield. It similarly pushed the envelope in terms of language, sex, and nudity for a basic-cable series. But where The Shield aimed for edge-of-your-seat thrills, Rescue Me opted for pitch-black comedy and insightful, though soapish drama.
It is a difficult show to watch in light of the Me Too movement. It is a bro-comedy in which a bunch of Alpha Males brag about how much sex they are having while making homophobic slurs. In the pilot episode, one of the characters complains about the failed date he had the night previous by saying, “All that pussy I was getting after 9/11? Now, nothing. People forget.” That’s a good joke but it's hard to know whether to laugh or brandish some SJW tweets. The show does seem to realize how unacceptable its comedy is and it doesn’t ask us to approve or emulate its group of hyper-masculine characters, yet it is entertaining and full of humor that will no doubt be copied by the exact kind of men it portrays. Early in the first season, the fire house gets a woman character who does push back against the rampant misogyny, but then she winds up sleeping with one of them and doesn’t make it past Season Two. The other women in the series are mostly wives and girlfriends who are continuously put upon by the lead male characters.
Leary plays Tommy Gavin, a veteran firefighter, literally haunted by the ghosts of his cousin, a fellow firefighter who died on 9/11 and various other people he has saved. He is an alcoholic who keeps falling off the wagon, whose wife has left him, and who has started a relationship with the wife of the aforementioned dead cousin. He has issues, to put it lightly. Made less than three years after September 11, 2001, the series is deeply informed by those wounds.The terrorist attacks deeply scarred all of the characters and much of the show’s dramatic weight comes from these manly men coming to terms with the losses they suffered on that day. Gavin struggles with why so many died yet he lived. His destructive tendencies come from wishing he didn’t.
Leary, who wrote many of the show’s episodes, grew up in a family of firefighters, and started a foundation to help firefighters in 2000, knows the life. The firehouse has the feel of realness to it. These are characters that don’t feel like characters, but guys who walked in off the street, cracking crude jokes to hide their pain.
The show works best as a comedy. The foul-mouthed jokes might make me cringe, but they certainly make me laugh out loud. If you’ve seen any of Leary’s stand-up routine, you know he can handle the dark, acerbic, fast-talking jokes the series lives in. When the series turns more dramatic, both Leary and the series struggle. It tries to be deeply meaningful, but never quite gets there. Unfortunately as the series grows longer, the jokes grow far between and the soapy drama amps up. Gavin faces one tragedy after another until it becomes too much for him and the audience to handle.
I did not watch the series when it first aired so it is difficult to get a feel for how it played back then. It ran for seven series and helped put F/X on the map as a serious cable network so obviously it had an impact. Watching it now, it feels important and yet it is also really difficult to watch in places.
Like a lot of Mill Creek releases, Rescue Me: The Complete Series is designed more for bargain hunters than home-video enthusiasts. They’ve crammed 93 episodes onto 16 disks and the video quality suffers for it. Details are decent and the textures are adequate. Compression artifacts are ever present. Colors and black stability wavers frequently. It isn’t terrible and overall, it isn’t too distracting but it's a far cry from optimal.
Audio quality isn’t fantastic either. The first two seasons feature DTS-HD Master audio 2.0, which is then upgraded, starting with Season 3, to 5.1 lossless. The upgrade is nice, giving the show a more robust soundscape, especially during the fire scenes, but even then, this is not show-off quality stuff.
The extras seem to all be ported from the previous seasons' releases, but they are bountiful. There are audio commentaries, gag reels, interviews, deleted scenes, and making-of features, all which help give a sense of how the series was made, how it changed from season to season, and what the creators were trying to do.
It is packaged in two sturdy cases with an attractive slip cover. The disks are set in individual plastic pages, which is an improvement over how some complete series are set inside cardboard sleeves that inevitably scratches the disks, but I suspect the bulk of this set will eventually break the plastic.
Despite some very real flaws, Rescue Me is a good show. Its crude, black comedy can be difficult at times but it can also make you bust a gut. It struggles as a serious drama, moving toward soap opera melodrama more than it should, but it also feel very authentic with characters drawn from real life. Mill Creek’s new set isn’t perfect, and if you are a stickler for audio/video quality, you’ll want to skip it. But if you are a fan of the show and just want a quality set at a good price, then this is perfect.