Rescue Me has never known what to do with its female characters. Most of them lose all self-control at the mere sight of legendary firefighter and perpetual screwup Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary); the rest break his balls or start fires that nearly kill him. The series, which begins its fourth season Wednesday 13, seems to want to rehabilitate its sexist image by adding a woman firefighter named Nona (gleefully game Jennifer Esposito). She’s strong and capable and has little tolerance for Tommy's shenanigans; so far, so good. But she’s also obsessed with getting him in the sack. The more things change...
Rescue Me frustrates, because when it’s good, it’s very good. It excels at showing blue-collar guys hanging out and giving each other a hard time. Every moment in the firehouse is a master class in male banter, and there’s a great scene
in episode three that allows a series of events to emasculate Tommy, then encourages us to laugh while he squirms.
But the show’s irritating tendencies haven’t receded. Rescue Me’s women (Callie Thorne as Tommy’s fire-starting lover, Sheila; Andrea Roth as his ex-wife, Janet, who’s adjusting to life with a new baby) no longer make sense as anything but plot devices. And cocreators Leary and Peter Tolan still heap undue misery on their characters. Improbably, and gratifyingly, this season’s first three episodes almost achieve the tone of a bubbly romantic comedy, but of course there has to be a twist that casts a pall over what came before. Leary’s barbed performance gets sharper by the year, and the comedy is as strong as ever, but this series filled with recidivist addicts can’t kick its own worst habit: unnecessary melodrama. — Todd VanDerWerff