IF DENIS LEARY'S PERFORMANCES came with stage directions, they might say something like: Exhales smoke to punctuate tirade. Flicks cigarette butt as if littering is his right and duty. Chews gum tortuously, trying to exact punishment for every time gum has let him down by revealing alcohol on his breath.
Leary, the actor-turned standup comic-turned television star, seemed for a while to serve no higher purpose (not that I was complaining) than rebuking the overwrought forces of public health and political correctness. His hard-drinking, chain-smoking, potty-mouthed spiel was a middle-fingered salute from America's unreformed regular guys to its armies of yuppified, feminized, new religion, gym-toned improvers.
But it's time to update the file on Leary. With his successful FX series Rescue Me riding high and glorious into a second season beginning June 21, the blue-collar rebel is helping to lead cable television's ongoing charge into entertainment excellence. Which makes the Shout! Factory's DVD release this month of Leary's er-Rescue Me series The Job (4 discs, $49.98) especially timely.
Leary (who also produced and receives writing credit on several episodes) created this half-hour sitcom about a New York police station with veteran writer Peter Tolan, a former writer for The Larry Sanders Show who is also the co-creator of Rescue Me. In the bonus feature interview, Leary and Tolan gripe extensively about ABC's failure to market The Job (which debuted in March 2001 and closed shop a year later), despite the splash it made with critics and audiences. The sitcom also developed a cult following among the ranks of the NYPD. One such cop told me it was the most accurate portrayal of the police department he'd seen on television. Revisited, the show remains brilliant. And yet deeply flawed. But, however you add that up, it's hard to feel bad about The Job's demise knowing that Rescue Me succeeded it.
The best episodes of the series take problems so ridiculous they could only happen in real life (and many of them apparently did, as Leary's character Mike McNeil is based on the bad habits and detecting successes of real-life cop Mike Charles), then boldly makes them into television. In the pilot, a legless suspect in a wheelchair tries to elude capture and almost succeeds thanks to a steep hill. In another episode, Leary's character gets taken hostage during a grueling moment of incontinence by a non-English-speaking suspect who is hiding out in the downstairs bathroom of the precinct house. When McNeil is sent to anger management class in the sixth episode for assaulting a cab driver, his classroom remarks result in an all-out brawl. The high point of the series is the third-to-last episode in which McNeil's artsy black girlfriend (he is Irish Catholic, living in an outer borough, and married with child) manipulates him into having dinner with her mother and father, who's a minister.
But as good as the writing is, the cast and characters are not uniformly winning. A muffled but hilarious lieutenant in the pilot played by Richard Gant is replaced one episode later by the over-the-top carnival barker Keith David. Standup comic Adam Ferrara as Detective Tommy Mannetti seems to be on hand to simply play "the young guy," which is not as bad as the job of Julian Acosta, who never says a word on the show, only to become the floating ghost of Buster Keaton throughout. Tolan mentions that he conceived of the latter role for the simple reason that it seemed like the precinct house needed more people in it. Not that the show was incapable of finding good roles for good actors: Lenny Clarke (who plays the messed-up Uncle Teddy on Rescue Me) as Frank Harrigan, Diane Farr (Laura on Rescue Me) as Jan Fendrich, and John Ortiz as Ruben Sommariba, all make you wonder if, given another season, The Job might have ascended to a new level of excellence.
First, though, Leary and Tolan would have had to resolve a major contradiction. It was up to Leary's McNeil to carry the gritty, documentary-style show, but the episodic, gag-focused routine fails to make the most of his compulsive character. The consequences of his lies, for example, would be dramatic if they were allowed to play out (as they do, brilliantly, on Rescue Me). But sitcoms are by definition static. Life-changing behavior, of the good or bad kind, would necessitate a changing situation, undermining the structural assumption of the genre. Allowing McNeil's marriage to fall apart, say, under the weight of his adultery would be more realistic, arguably more interesting, but possibly less funny. But by not allowing his infidelity and his pill-popping to really play out, The Job makes his failings too cute, like the neatly parted haircut that, on the show, sits atop Dennis Leary's haggard face. Together, the two don't make sense--though critics applauded the show for having the courage to make its lead character human and potentially unattractive.
Fair enough--anti-heroes require more courage than throwing on another fat-husband/hot-wife sitcom full of jokes as canned as the laughter. But not seeing your anti-hero through to the un-heroic implications of his actions frustrates the natural arc of storytelling. The problem isn't really that network executives lacked the courage to get behind a show about an unattractive character, but that the situation comedy lacks the wherewithal to accommodate the rise and fall of a truly self-destructive person.
Sleeping with a woman not your wife? "That stuff is biblical," says McNeil's partner, Pip, played by Bill Nunn, who also disapproves of McNeil's drug habit. And he's right, but the sitcom cannot handle Old Testament disaster, only short-term shock.
Where The Job failed, however, Rescue Me saves the day. Using a very similar "on the brink" character (Painkillers and "a bottle of Bushmills are all that's keeping me from taking hostages," says McNeil in the opening episode of The Job, a line that could easily be uttered by Tommy Gavin, Leary's faithless alcoholic fireman on Rescue Me), the new show is every bit as funny, but far more compelling. Instead of making Leary's wife a fool who appears on the show only when convenient, Rescue Me makes her a major character, a fed-up ex-wife who lives across the street from his house. And what's true of the wife is true of several characters on Rescue Me, as they move from gag to character drama and back, not to indulge some primadonna's thirst for character development, but to advance the ongoing ensemble drama.
In Rescue Me, Leary has taken his trademark pissed-off character and allowed him to grow into a person of generous proportions, full of faults, and yet ennobled by his struggle to make good on the memory of his fellow firemen who died in 9/11. (One wonders also if by some bizarre logic 9/11 has finally made it easier to show the excremental side of the heroic first responder.) With this touch of grace and the dramatic room to live out the consequences of his actions, Denis Leary's angry white male is developing into a tragic figure both breathtaking and side-splitting. The Job is, at its best, only side-splitting (again, not that I'm complaining), having preserved its main character from his surely tragic destiny.