Denis Leary provides gritty portrayal of angry Catholic

By  Michael Higgins
  • July 12, 2007
{mosimage}Gone are the days when Catholic themes on either a network or specialty channel, television drama or sitcom series would have garnered a measure of respectful fascination, bemused interest or benign mystification.
The brilliant and brutal prison drama series Oz put an abrupt end to that, although the Catholic “substance” — errant priests, anguished if not confused penitents and prison staff extraordinaire — was both, well, substantive and enlightened. Rescue Me, the bold and in some ways iconoclastic post-9/11 New York firefighters series by Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, is a different matter.

Leary is a tough, sardonic, occasionally arch but always evisceratingly funny Boston-bred, Irish-American comic and actor who takes no quarter when it comes to Catholic subjects. He spares no one and nothing. The series — beginning its fourth season — is ostensibly about a dysfunctional firefighter, Tommy Gavin, and his firehall mates, his bedmates, his family, his struggle with alcoholism and other addictions, his guilt (there is a superabundance of this pointedly Catholic burden) and his frequently anti-PC opinions. He is a younger and more attractive priapic and vestigially Catholic Archie Bunker.

But how vestigial? As it happens, the Catholic “thing” is not so easily exorcised nor does he want to escape the faith and culture that has shaped him. He needs his Catholicism to rail against.

Gavin/Leary has stocked the series with Catholic matter and mocks it ceaselessly. In the first three seasons alone we have had: Gavin’s brother, a priest of the archdiocese, leave his ministry in disgust; a young, charismatic priest-pedophile forced to confront the consequences of his predatory behaviour against a backdrop of stomach-churning violence; Tommy himself having numerous conversations with Himself (Jesus), and these are not inner locutions; Tommy’s friend, Lou,  having regular commerce — the sexual not the spiritual kind — with an endearing if seriously befuddled novice; and numberless references to Catholic bric-a-brac, devotional practices, moral prohibitions and cultural accoutrements that define the Catholic sensibility in all its NYC iterations — Italian, Irish or Puerto Rican.

The series is deeply Catholic, neither reverential nor antagonistic, although some might think it the latter with its occasionally visceral rage against Catholic mores and institutional hypocrisy with its accompanying sense of betrayal. But such rage really is an indicator of the post-Second Vatican Council, the post-patriarchy, the post-culture war and most significantly, the post-clerical sex-abuse pandemic lens through which most Catholic feeling in the United States  is now filtered.

Rescue Me has its soap-opera-ish qualities, its adolescent delight in pricking adult rectitude, its daring explicitness in handling all the taboos (are there any left?), its self-pleasuring defiance and insularity that allows it to thrill to the sound of its own gnostic-tinged script and its brazen disregard for all authority. All of these contribute to its cultish appeal.

But it is also a universal moral drama played out in the world of a cynical, sex-besotted, love-craving and smart-assed firefighting anti-hero caught in an endless maelstrom of ever-accelerating moral and emotional velocity.  Gavin needs rescuing. Like us all. If that isn’t Catholic, I don’t know what is.

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