Rescue Me premiered on the F/X Network on July 21, 2004. Set in New York City, the series spotlights the professional and personal lives of firefighters at a fictitious firehouse, post 9/11. Denis Leary, who also created the show along with Peter Tolan, stars as Tommy Gavin, a firefighter struggling with the aftermath of 9/11, alcohol abuse, and self-destruction.
On September 7th, four days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Rescue Me finishes its run after seven successful seasons. Denis Leary and Peter Tolan came by the TV Critics tour for one last panel to talk about their groundbreaking series.
Did you know exactly how long the series was going to run, and who decided to end it now?
Denis Leary: If the show was going to remain popular enough, ending it right at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 would be the perfect world. Obviously, we’ve dealt with a mixture of drama and comedy with the issues on the show, but there would be a natural feeling of summing up, where the guys have to stop and think as members of the fire department.
There are going to be celebrations. There are going to be moratoriums. There are going to be all of these things approaching. We definitely have to deal with 9/11 again. So it was kind of a natural thing.
In a lot of ways, Rescue Me has felt like this long treatise on post-traumatic stress, and I’m wondering now that we are coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, are there any lessons about surviving the legacy of 9/11 or getting past it that you feel like the show really highlighted?
Peter Tolan: I’ve always felt that the show just kept the idea of what happen on 9/11 alive. I’ve always felt that there’s an American response to things like that where they say, ‘Well, that happened and we survived it, and it’s done. It’s over.’ When, in fact, there is so much more work.
There are so many more tentacles of pain that are still being dealt with because of that event. And so just in terms of keeping it alive, in some small way, I felt like that was a positive ancillary effect of Rescue Me.
At what stage of the show did you know what the ending was going to be?
Peter: In the fifth or sixth season, we knew what it was. We always had rather grim prognostications for Tommy Gavin’s end. One was that he would actually, in the middle of a fire; just sit down in the middle of a burning room in a chair, and that would be the end of the series. His family would be taken care of after his death since he couldn’t take care of them in life.
Ultimately, we came to realize that the idea of the show was will a man who has survived great tragedy actually survive it or not? And I think in the face of seven seasons of television, you don’t want to say no to that question. You don’t want to bring people along on a journey that long and then say, ‘No, he’s not going to survive.’
It’s just a very negative message. So we decided to go with something a little more hopeful.
I admire how you coupled comedy with tragedy in the series. Can you talk a little about that?
Denis: Before we were doing Rescue Me, I was around (New York firefighter and the show’s technical advisor) Terry Quinn’s firehouse, and I was there the day after 9/11. And there were a lot of funny things that happened that had to do with people working down at Ground Zero, and I hope [that truth is reflected] in Rescue Me.
One of the funniest things we thought that we ever did on this show came out of the grief that’s contained in the final two episodes of the series, where we realized, in the middle of this very heavy stuff, this funny thing popped up.
Peter: Recently Denis and I went to Washington, DC We donated Tommy Gavin’s bunker gear to the Smithsonian Museum. I don’t think we thought about it much until we got there. And I remember we sat down for the induction ceremony, and Denis said me, ‘Hey, this is serious.’
We realized at that point the show was actually culturally significant. Working in television, that’s the last thing you expect to happen to anything you write. And it made me really stop and think about how this show was really the only piece of popular entertainment to spring from 9/11. It’s the only one that was accepted and lasted. I think the reason is because of the humor.
What happened [on 9/11] was an earth-shattering, life-changing event for so many people, and the humor in the series is just how we really deal with things, this is how people move forward. They continue to live, they laugh, and life goes on.
What do firefighters say about 9/11?
Denis: There are a lot of guys in the FDNY who when they talk about that event, they talk about it as the single greatest rescue effort in the history of the fire service, which is true. They see it as active participants, like ‘We did an incredible job that day in tragic circumstances.’