When Rescue Me started in 2004, no one else had done a successful TV show about the impact of Sept. 11. As the series finale approaches, that’s pretty much still true. Denis Leary’s dark comic drama will have its final episode in the U.S. on Sept. 7, and Showcase will air it in Canada on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Peter Tolan, who co-created the show with Leary, says there was “a little bit of manipulation in terms of the network” when they realized “that if we did a certain number of episodes, it could end right around that time.” But it’s appropriate: the story of Tommy Gavin, a firefighter traumatized by his experiences on 9/11, has dealt with lots of subjects—especially booze and sex—but it always comes back to their inspiration for the show: being in New York in 2001 and “seeing the firefighters deal with Ground Zero.”
The status of Rescue Me as the quasi-official TV show of 9/11 seemed to be cemented last month, when the producers donated some of its props and costumes (including firefighter hats and charred flashlights) to the Smithsonian. Dwight Bowers, the museum’s curator of entertainment collections, told Maclean’s this show had to be part of the collection because it’s become “one of the ways we deal with” the memory of Sept. 11. But not a lot of other pop-culture works are expected to end up at the Smithsonian: movies like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center have performed disappointingly, and TV has mostly ignored the topic except for very special episodes.
Though Rescue Me usually steers away from recreating the tragedy—Tolan says it was “just creepy” when episodes portrayed it directly—it’s gone beyond other shows in dealing with 9/11 trauma or conspiracy theories. The centrepiece of a recent episode was a speech by Lou (John Scurti) about the plight of firemen who were at Ground Zero but didn’t die. If 9/11 is sometimes a remote memory on the news, it’s still a very immediate part of the characters’ experience on Rescue Me.
Even as the show helps call more attention to 9/11, the 9/11 connection may have helped increase interest in the show. Leary’s misanthropic and self-hating character, Tommy, is a typical cable-TV anti-hero in a lot of ways. He’s also similar to the man Leary played on The Job, the flop show he and Tolan were shooting in New York in September 2001. What makes Tommy stand out from all those other TV characters is that he is literally haunted by 9/11, with victims appearing to him as ghosts. Tolan adds that Tommy has a heroic job, of “running in when everyone else is running out,” and that makes the whole show an examination of the fact that “what defines a hero is very muddled.” Without that background, Tommy might just be another creep who sees ghosts, like Dexter; the 9/11 element adds depth.
It could be that the fading of 9/11 as an issue in the U.S. has made Rescue Me less of a cultural icon. As the novelty of the premise has worn off a little, critics online and in print have been restless about some of the plots. A current storyline, about a nasty female reporter turning a Sept. 11 documentary into a hit piece on Tommy, has received criticism for alleged implausibility; Tolan doesn’t remember “a specific story that touched on that” in real life, though he says that “I know it’s there.”
Still, once Tommy Gavin comes to terms with his experiences, there will be very little 9/11 material left on TV except as a distant plot device: Jonathan Nolan, creator of the new show Person of Interest, told critics that his characters are able to spy on people because “after 9/11, you started seeing cameras everywhere.” Instead of exploiting post-9/11 paranoia like those shows, Rescue Me seemed to try to make us feel a little less depressed about the whole ordeal. And that may be part of why the creators feel it’s important to go out with some kind of positive message. “You want to say, yes, people do survive, and they figure out how to go on with things,” Tolan explains. “And that, ultimately, is what the show is about.”