Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where the Soul Is

Hollywood has a bad reputation for quality. And, more often than not, it’s justified. But the truth is that there are gems out there, and there are writers whose every line should be studied by us in the same way that Tennessee Williams’, Eugene O’Neill’s and Edward Albee’s lines are studied and scrutinized.

We begin Storytellers with a four-article series, of which this is the last, concentrating on the top four writers or writing-teams working in television today. Most of their scripts are certainly worthy of study and re-examination, and yet the episodes we watch get old in our minds faster than yesterday’s newspaper.

The Top Four

In the top spot: David E. Kelley.

At number two: Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin maintains high quality more often than Kelley. But when Kelley’s good, he has an even wider range, sharper claws, and better drama.

In third place we had Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, writers of most of the first six seasons of Gilmore Girls.

And this week we get to talk about the writers in fourth place: Rescue Me’s creators and main writers, Peter Tolan and Denis Leary.

All these writers or writing-teams can write heart-wrenching drama; can have more laugh-out-loud comedy in a drama than can be found in most sitcoms; have a clear view on life, which they convey through their stories; can deliver stories that feel as intense and intensive as a two-hour movie; do not look down at their audience and do not talk down to it; and all four put their heart in their hands when they write well, and let us watch it bleed.

Peter Tolan and Denis Leary deserve special attention, because they created something rarely found in television or movies these days: A show with soul.

Apart or Together?

Leary and Tolan are not the same apart as they are together. We last saw them on separate shows.

Peter Tolan is best remembered for The Larry Sanders Show, a brilliantly-written show that was as cold as ice.

Denis Leary, meanwhile, wrote The Job, where he played, much like in Rescue Me, a macho, alcoholic cop who cheats on his wife and can’t handle life. But at the end of the day, The Job wasn’t about anything, and its plots were all over the place. Although Peter Tolan was around, his presence was not felt in the writing. This was Leary’s show.

A few years later, when the two collaborated in writing and creating Rescue Me, it seems that each gave the other what he lacked. Tolan gave Leary structure, while Leary gave Tolan the soul he needed. Together, they created a show that’s actually about something.

Tough Guys and Tortured Souls

Rescue Me is about people who hold it in and what they go through when life gets tough. It is about the virtues and faults of holding it in. But mostly, it’s about what happens to people who don’t break when they finally do break.

Before we get to the stuff that breaks the characters down, let’s meet them.

Tommy, played by Leary, is an alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill-popping New-York Irish fireman who cheats on his wife, Janet, and comes from a long line of alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill-popping Irish firemen who cheat on their wives. He has three kids and when we meet him, he’s going through a divorce, and is spying on his wife, unable to let her go.

Here he is, in season 1, explaining why the guys at work don’t know he stopped drinking: “I quit drinking in front of family, so that Janet would think that I really quit drinking so I could get back together with her, but I didn’t tell the guys at work I quit drinking because I didn’t want them to think it’s a sign of weakness, or that, you know, I was having some kind of sudden change, like I was losing it. Plus it allowed me to keep drinking while I was going to AA.”

Tommy’s firehouse is filled with men who are the archetype ‘tough guys’: macho, homophobic, and emotionally unavailable. Firefighters are heroes to Leary and Tolan, but they are as flawed as any of us. For example:

Tommy is talking with Franco about last night’s escapades. Halfway through, Tommy says, “What I can’t believe is you making a move on a chick with sideburns.”

To which Franco replies: “Hey, Tommy, it’s getting slow out there, pal. All that pussy I was getting after 9/11? Now nothing. People forget.”

“Yeah,” Tommy says. “Sad commentary.”

Acerbic, cynical people. And real.

Here’s another example of how Leary and Tolan write their tough guys:

Someone anonymously posted a poem they wrote in the firehouse.

Tommy reads it allowed, then ridicules it.

The author says, “I don’t know, it’s not that bad. It rhymes.”

“So what,” says Tommy. “My ten-year-old can make stuff rhyme. It doesn’t mean he’s the next, uh... Name a poet.”

“Angie Dickinson,” says one firefighter.

“Angie Dickinson? From Police Woman?”

Franco, puffing on his cigarette, says, “Nah, I think you mean Emily Dickinson, from the Belle of Amherst.”

Tommy looks at him, surprised, “You know poetry?”

“Nah,” he puffs on his cigarette again. “I jacked off to a picture of her once, when I was eleven.”

But it’s not the comedy that gives Rescue Me its soul, and not the dialogue. It’s the broken, shattered people. The show is populated with tough people with tough lives who don’t know what to do when things get too tough. One of Tommy’s firefighting friends has a gay son with which he cannot talk and a wife with Alzheimer who forgets she’s married. Another firefighter's daughter is rushed to the hospital because she took his pills, but that's not enough for him to be able to quit taking them. Tommy’s wife takes the kids, sells the house, and all four disappear.

Jimmy, also a firefighter, was Tommy’s cousin and best friend, and he died on 9/11. His wife, Sheila, can’t stop crying and can’t find a man. She gets drunk and hits on Tommy: “I can’t meet anybody. I can’t get Jimmy out of my mind. He’s always there. You are the closest thing I have to him. You’re sweet. You’re funny. And you’re here. Right now. Right here. Christ, you lost Jimmy, you just lost Billy Warren, I mean how long do you think all of us have?”

Tommy is haunted by the ghosts of the people he didn’t save, including Jimmy’s. The dead people follow him, talk to him, and haunt his dreams as well as his waking life.

When Tommy’s mother dies unexpectedly, his father begins to cry: “You know, my father cried a lot towards the end of his life. He never cried before then. Probably not even as a baby. But near the end, you looked at him cross-eyed, and he’d bust out bawling. It’s the ghosts, Tommy.”

Tommy suddenly takes a greater interest in this, “It’s the what?”

“All the people you’ve hurt, all the meanness you did. You get old, you stop moving a million miles a minute. It all comes back. It really shows up again. All you can do... All you can do is cry.” And he does. Too embarrassed, he waves Tommy off, “Go on, get out of here! Make your suck-ass coffee!”

Tommy and all the men in the firehouse and their families don’t know how to break. Leary and Tolan throw at their characters everything they can, making their lives as hard as possible, to see how they would react. To teach us, to teach the characters, and to teach themselves something more about human nature.

Three extreme examples of how tough things get and what happens then:

After his wife kidnaps the kids, sells the house, and disappears, Tommy hits rock bottom. He soaks himself in vodka, and lights the lighter, inching it closer towards his body.

Halfway through the show, just as his life is getting back in order, and as everything with his wife is good again, their son is killed in a mindless hit-and-run. How do you deal with something as horrible as that? And how does someone like Tommy, who can’t deal with anything, deal with something like that?

Another unbearable, unforgettable moment of television comes a few episodes later. His own brother is secretly sleeping with Tommy’s ex-wife. One episode revolves around the fact that one of the firefighters in Tommy’s firehouse is secretly sleeping with Tommy’s crazy sister, constantly telling us how Tommy beat her last boyfriend within an inch of his life. This helps set up Tommy’s mindset and, at the same time, blindside us to the main event. Towards the end of the episode, in a family event, Tommy sees his brother and his ex-wife touching under the table.

In an amazing piece of acting, Tommy completely loses it: We see the wires snap inside his brain, as he just looks at them. Then, with absolutely no warning, he leaps across the table, no longer entirely sane, and beats his brother. He throws him all over the place, then into the street, throws his head through the car of a window, kicks him, and, spitting on him, leaves him half-dead on the road.

There is a difference between this drama in Rescue Me and the dramatic turns that appear in shows like ER and Third Watch. The last two have drama for drama's sake, because it keeps the audience glued to the set. Something is burning inside Leary, and he and Tolan keep writing situations that return to the same thing: breaking the unbreakable people. And during that process, Leary makes us feel for an hour what he feels all the time, and we all learn something about human nature.

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