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'Rescue Me': Hail to the chief

June 29, 2007 |  5:17 pm

Characters have died on "Rescue Me" before, but the show had never killed off one of its original cast members. Until now.

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Jack McGee has played Chief Jerry Reilly since "Rescue Me" premiered in 2004. A former firefighter off screen, McGee brought real-world credibility to his portrayal of a job veteran. He was the father figure, the sensible voice on a team of very human buffoons and screw-ups.

But on this week's episode Reilly killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

The development has created a minor firestorm, partly because McGee has been vocal about his displeasure with the creative decision. In interviews with TV Guide and the website Television Without Pity, McGee expressed resentment over the way he found out about Reilly's fate and painted a portrait of series star and executive producer Denis Leary as non-communicative and egotistical, attributes that readily apply to Leary's character Tommy Gavin.

The Chief's suicide came as a surprise, but was spurred by dramatic shifts in the character's life. His wife has fully succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, his gay son (whom he never quite accepted) held a commitment ceremony with his partner and Reilly's failing health forced him into a desk job. At one point Reilly told a colleague that if he couldn't keep his job he had nothing to live for.

At the same time, Tommy was clearly fretting about old age. He's looking a little closer at erectile dysfunction ads, noticing he's not looking so hot anymore (even referring to himself as a "hag") and, adding injury to insult, he was beaten up by his daughter's rocker boyfriend in front of his crew. The message wasn't so subtle, Tommy seems destined to end up as lonely and hopeless and Reilly.

And maybe that's part of what made McGee so upset. Eventually, nearly everything on "Rescue Me" is all about Tommy. Susan Sarandon guest starred on the series last season and only had one scene with Leary, but it was arguably the most important scene of her arc. Marisa Tomei appeared on the show last season and immediately fell in to bed with Tommy, while Jennifer Esposito currently appears in the show's weakest storyline as a female firefighter aggressively pursuing Tommy for a date. Gina Gershon and Amy Sedaris are scheduled for later in the season…reportedly to sleep with Tommy. And while all this female attention may seem a bit self-serving of Leary, who co-writes the majority of the episodes, having a strong central character on a drama series is hardly a crime. Ultimately, everything on "The Sopranos" revolved around Tony, and that worked out pretty well.

Tommy is our window into the particular world of "Rescue Me," and the most important thing is the daring, provocative and, yes, sometimes frustrating way in which Leary and colleague Peter Tolan explore that world. Sometimes characters will die (and later appear as ghosts to, who else?, Tommy) but as hard as it may be to ask an actor to give up steady work, that's a necessary reality of a show about a life-and-death job.

Besides, labeling "Rescue Me" as a one-man-show does a great disservice to the excellent supporting cast. In addition to the suicide and Gavin midlife crisis, this week's episode was a solid showcase for Michael Lombardi as the frequently ridiculed "probie" firefighter Mike Silletti. Last week, his terminally ill mother asked Mike to take her life and this week he wrestled with the decision during an amusing "man date" with Tommy.

Silletti may occasionally seem too dumb to function, but Lombardi gives the character a winning puppy dog charm and his status as the most put-upon of the crew only works to make him even more endearing. He's always trying to fit in with the team (one of this week's best blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments was when Silletti sheepishly offered Tommy some toothpaste in the lockerroom), and it will be interesting to see if his character grows as he begins to transition out of probie status.

The Chief will be missed, but the world of "Rescue Me" races on.

-- Geoff Berkshire

(Photo courtesy FX)

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