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Rescue Me Plays With Fire, Burns Up the Web

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Last Tuesday, the antihero of Rescue Me may have gotten a little too anti for a lot of the show’s viewers. Firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary), arguing with his estranged wife (who is now dating his brother) over dividing their assets, hits her, throws her down on a couch, tears her clothes open, then—this is where it gets confusing—seems to force himself on her. Seems to, because her reaction goes from angry to aroused. Tommy climaxes, she coolly dresses and shrugs off the incident and Tommy swaggers out off the house, seemingly thinking that he’s reclaimed his wife from his brother.

It was an intense, complex scene touching on the murky mess of conflicting emotions that drive a dysfunctional marriage. That, or it was a show saying that women enjoy being raped. Not surprisingly, a lot of Rescue Me viewers, including longtime fans, decided on the latter, and they decided that the show—which has always uncomfortably dealt with macho, sexist male characters—had jumped the shark, or, as The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall put it, "raped the shark."

I’ll tell you what I think in a minute, but less important than that is how Denis Leary’s writing partner and co-producer, Peter Tolan, responded to what everyone else thought. Jumping into the Rescue Me forum at TV-dissection site Television Without Pity, Tolan defended the scene, saying he was careful not to write it as a rape, but as an extreme example of a long screwed-up relationship between Tommy and his wife:

"Our feeling has always been that Tommy and Janet are in a highly dysfunctional relationship (obviously), a negative vortex fueled by only one positive— a faint glimmer of love that is constantly overshadowed by truly fantastic physical attraction. In terms of the scene last night, I never wrote the words ‘don’t’ or ‘no’ at any point in the scene, and when I talked to Andrea about the playing of the thing, I pretty much told her that she had to stand up to Tommy— that he had taken so much away from her over the years, that she had to stare him down from a position of strength while he was forcing himself on her. I told her to shame him with the words she was given— to let him know she couldn’t hurt her anymore, no matter what he did."

Tolan posted several more times, beginning a contentious but fascinating back-and-forth, not just about the was-it-rape scene but a (to me, more disturbing) storyline in which one of the firefighters gets into a gay relationship that becomes violent but is played for laughs. It’s not just what we learn about the sexual politics of the show —search TV Without Pity for Tolan’s pseudonym "JimSpriggs" for all his posts — but what it reveals about the slapdash, feeling-in-the-dark nature of writing a TV series. Tolan gamely admits that Rescue Me sometimes has a hard time maintaining its balance of drama and black humor, and that some storylines—like the gay firefighter—end up fizzling out because the staff writes themselves into a corner.

About the sex scene: whether you call it rape or not—which I’ll leave to the law and university harrassment-code authors—it’s definitely brutal: the exercise of sex as power. (Which of course is what rape is about.) I think Tommy genuinely wants Janet back, but also genuinely wants to hurt her—after he climaxes, his face is a twisted, red, gremlin-like mask of rage. (I don’t exactly think we’re meant to like him here.) But I also think it’s demeaning to Janet to say that she should have reacted to the scene in a certain way because that’s how "women"—as a group—would or should; she’s an individual, not a demographic, and clearly is bound up in her own feelings for Tommy, her attraction to him through (and maybe because of) his hurtfulness and her desire not to let him get the upper hand by hurting her. Whether you believe she has been raped in the scene, she has not been defeated.

But that doesn’t let Tolan and Leary off the hook. I came to that conclusion from watching the scene, rewatching it, reading the discussion online, reading Tolan and Leary’s comments about their intentions with the scene and reading various other critics’ responses to their responses. And I think it’s safe to say that, if it takes that level of exegesis to decipher a scene that you hadn’t expected to be controversial at all—as Tolan has said over the past week—somewhere along the line you screwed up.

If Tolan and Leary genuinely did not think they were making a provocative scene, if it never occured to them that maybe they were trying to engrave a dramatically delicate point with a sledgehammer, then their creative process is probably too insular. (Maybe this is the flipside to that FX freedom—in this case, maybe they could have used an uptight suit telling them the scene was a bad idea, or at least an ambitious idea they simply failed to pull off.)

In which case, as the TWOP exchange shows, it’s a good thing that TV is no longer a one-way street running from producer to audience. A new Rescue Me airs tonight at 10 p.m. You might mant to watch with your laptop.

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