As the End Begins For ‘Rescue Me,’ Its’ Co-Creator Reflects On the Show’s Legacy

photo-4-rescue-me-leary-soloThe FX drama “Rescue Me” has received plenty of critical praise during its seven-season run, racking up big ratings and award nominations for its tales about a group of New York fireman dealing with life after 9/11. However, it wasn’t until co-creator/executive producer Peter Tolan learned that his show was going the same route as Fonzie’s leather jacket that its significance finally dawned on him.

This week, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. will add star Denis Leary’s firefighting gear to its collection of famous TV memorabilia. And upon hearing that, Tolan finally spent some time mulling over the legacy of his series. Only then did he truly realize that “ours was the only show created as a direct response” to 9/11.

“After getting the Smithsonian news, I thought, ‘Gee, that’s kind of neat. I guess people do see this show as culturally significant.’ We certainly never thought, ‘Oh, this is important,’” he explains. “We never thought about the historical significance of it. We just thought, ‘How did we pull this off? How did we get away with it?’”

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“Rescue Me” begins its seventh and final season Wednesday night, with the last episode scheduled to air just a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In anticipation of the historic series’ final episodes, Tolan talked to about what fans can expect to see this year.

Did you have a definite final scene in mind when you started shooting Season 7?

We were writing toward a definite end, and knew we had a last shot to say what we wanted to say. It was actually helpful to have the end to write to. It gave the storytelling more focus. And where we ended up isn’t where we thought.

So where did you think you’d finish the story?

I remember distinctly a moment in the third season, talking to Denis while were shooting in a neighborhood somewhere. I asked him if he’d given any thought to how he wanted the show to end and he said his first idea was for his character (Tommy Gavin) to go into a fire and just sit down in a chair. That’s the end of the show. He commits suicide. He knows his family will be taken care of, so it’s also a noble gesture. But after that, we introduced the Maura Tierney character, which got him out of the sick orbit of his relationship with his wife, Janet (Andrea Roth). We thought he’d be happier with her. She’s got a place at the beach so he’d retire and go live with her. We’d see him one night go to the beach by himself, take his clothes off, go into the water and just keep swimming. It’s a little more obscure than the first idea.

Is that the final scene?

We knew that wasn’t the right thing either. As we worked through the fifth season, we realized that if show’s central question is, “Will a man who survives a tragedy ultimately be able to survive?,” we better have a positive answer. Otherwise, we’re negating the series and leaving audience with a negative message that is false. Denis said, “Why not go back to (the site of the Twin Towers) and see Tommy with a new class of guys?” We thought that was much more suitable.

Are you happy with how you finish up?

Our show was always is distinguished by the amount of humor in it. Which gets to the point of how this show should end. People do survive, and they do it with humor. If we sent a message other than that, we’d be denying the basic idea of the show.

As this final year begins, what state of mind is Tommy in?

He’s searching to find his place in the world. He hasn’t done the work to have the right to even have a place. But now he’s taking steps to get to the point where he can reenter his own life. That’s part of the whole idea of surviving. You look at where you’ve been, and how you can pull your stuff together.

It seems like he spends a lot his time in the first few episodes watching the women in his life, from his wife Janet to his former girlfriend (Callie Thorne) to his daughters, talk about him.

There are times when he’s in situations where he’s completely surrounded by women and the women don’t necessarily need him. There’s a lot of support that goes on between the women this year that’s never happened in the past. They have their own support system now and don’t seem to need Tommy. So he has to refigure his place in the house. That’s a function of his having been absent through his addiction and grief. The women are definitely the ones moving forward and he is off to the side, watching.

Will the other woman who has been in his life, cancer survivor Kelly, played by Maura Tierney, be back?

She’s in multiple episodes. You’ll see her story go where it’s supposed to go. It’s rooted in the same idea of what this season is supposed to be – about somebody who has been through something difficult and survived it having an unexpected reaction tot that survival. Tommy may be able to help her and she may be able to help Tommy.

One of the other important women in Tommy’s life is his oldest daughter, Colleen (Natalie Distler). She and Black Sean (Larenz Tate) seem to be getting closer, yet further apart, at the start of this season. What’s going to happen with them this year?

We’ll follow them to a very funny but natural conclusion to their relationship. Everything for those characters and others has changed. They’re all some version of what we expected when we first started the series, but what we wrote was always remarkably fluid. Not always successful, but fluid. We never wanted to get lost in the story and tried to stay open to anything.

With that in mind, what do you have in store for the guys at the firehouse?

Lou (John Scurti) continues to battle health issues. Ultimately, he’s an unhappy, lonely guy. He’s the embodiment of the guy who has only his job, and if he loses that, he’ll die. Meanwhile, Franco (Daniel Sunjata) is finally taking the lieutenant exam. He’s much more in Tommy’s face, essentially saying, “I’m moving on with my life, unlike you. You’re a mess.” Theirs will be a more contentious relationship. It leaves Tommy no less vital but maybe less significant a work, just like he is feeling at home.

Tommy and Janet are expecting a baby this season. Did you work Andrea Roth’s real-life pregnancy into the story?

There are few places that aren’t her real pregnancy. She has the baby late in the season. And we did use her real baby. I don’t feel like we made a big deal out of Janet and Tommy having a baby. We certainly wanted Tommy to get his act together but very little of that has to do with the idea of baby.

The one ongoing TV series inspired by 9/11 is going off the air just as the 10th anniversary of the tragedy arrives. Will the anniversary be a major theme for the show all season?

It becomes a little more important. We’ve tried not to overdo it with 9/11, to be respectful of the lives that were truly affected. But the story point is that the 10th anniversary is coming. There’s going to books and interviews. You’ll se it in real life and on the show. And we did jigger with time on the show to make things line up with the anniversary. We leap ahead several months in the first episode this season.

With “Rescue Me” being immortalized by the Smithsonian, it’s clear the show had a lot of cultural importance. What do you think its legacy will be?

Everybody thinks you have all this time to smoke your pipe and say to yourself, “This is so significant.” You hope your show is that, but you don’t have time for reflection about what it all means. You’re just trying to get it shot. We wanted to do a show that was a realistic depiction of guys in the times after this event. You just have to tell a story, and our story was about these people. Tommy is a very flawed person and at same time, very foolish and vain. He’s all these things that people are. We did the show about that, and it worked.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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