In Rescue Me
's most controversial season, Tommy Gavin's demons really turn up the heat on the seriously damaged New York firefighter. Glavin (Emmy-nominee Denis Leary in searing performances throughout) is wracked with grief over the tragic death of his son and struggles to deal with his estrangement from his wife, Janet (a superb Andrea Roth). In the season's most hotly debated episode, Tommy forces himself on Janet in, initially, non-consensual sex. Later, she takes up with Tommy's brother, Johnny (Dean Winters). By this time, devoted viewers, in the words of one character, know Tommy's every "grunt, tic and tell." But even his ghosts can only laugh at how low he sinks this season ("Next stop, China," Tommy ruefully replies). To get back at Janet and Johnny, he begins to date Angie (guest star Marisa Tomei), Johnny's ex-wife. He continually succumbs to his "basest levels," as when he has sex with the high school science teacher who is having an affair with his godson, Damian. But Tommy is able to show courageous restraint as in the intense scene in which when he is left alone to confront the prime suspect responsible for another tragic death in the family.
Rescue Me's other flawed characters try to contain their own life crises. Chief Reilly (Jack McGee) is in desperate financial straits when the nursing home caring for his wife, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, raises its fees. Sheila (Callie Thorne) goes to her own shocking desperate measures to pursue Tommy. Tommy's father (venerable character actor Charles Durning) is becoming increasingly difficult to care for. Sean (Steven Pasquale) is secretly involved with Tommy's outrageously unstable sister, Maggie (Tatum O'Neal). Franco (Daniel Sujata) meets a "sugar momma" (Susan Sarandon) with devastating consequences. And "Probie" (Michael Lombardi) wrestles with his sexuality. Played mostly for comic relief is Teddy's (Lenny Clarke) stint in jail for the murder of the drunk driver who killed Tommy's son. This third season divided critics and viewers, but the uniformly excellent ensemble grounds even the most outrageous plot turns in reality. And it's a testament to the incisive writing and intimately observed performances that even when these characters behave most unsympathetically and invite the slings and arrows of "a little thing called karma," we are compelled to continue to take them into our homes and hearts. Or, as Tommy might say to that, "Blah, blah, blah." --Donald Liebenson