Denis Leary, Louis CK
If you're the sort that looks for role models on TV, then FX probably isn't your default destination. The network for bad boys (and the not-so-saintly women who often helped make them that way) kicks into high summer gear Tuesday night with the return of the blisteringly bitter Rescue Me (splitting its final season over two years, concluding in 2011 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11). It's joined this year by the not-much-sunnier comedy Louie, which premieres with back-to-back episodes.
Both are quintessentially New York series, finding extremes of very dark humor in the noise and grit and gutter mentality of surviving in the city—although in the case of Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary), the self-destructive wretch at the booze-drenched heart and possible soul of Rescue Me, many could argue that he may have been better off dead.
As the sixth season begins, Tommy is still reeling from last season's bleak cliffhanger, when he was shot by his vengeful and grieving Uncle Teddy and left bleeding in the firefighters' bar. Let's just say Tommy's fleeting image of a blazing afterlife, informed by survivor guilt dating back to the tragedy of 9/11, isn't quite as soothing as the limbo we witnessed in the Lost finale. Think Backdraft II, sponsored by Hell.
Once he's back on his feet, Tommy is rocked by one recrimination after another, especially by his unforgiving family. The sins of this wayward father are biting him where it hurts, and it just keeps hurting. "We make the Jackson family look like the g.d. Osmonds," is how Teddy puts it.
Things aren't much rosier back at the firehouse, where the recession is putting more of the city's fire companies in jeopardy of closing. And as the irascible chief barks, all of the shooting and the drinking hasn't helped this squad's reputation. "This house is on its g.d. legs." The comic relief we have come to rely on in the macho camaraderie has more of a tinge of gallows humor this season, which isn't to say that Rescue Me feels like a show on its last legs, more like it's nearing its natural (or, given the frequency of Tommy's post-traumatic hallucinations, unnatural) end.
If Rescue Me leaves you wanting to wallow even deeper in the pool of comedy-as-misery, meet Tommy's stand-up soulmate Louis C.K., star and auteur of Louie, a brutally funny slice of rant that bears a surface resemblance to Seinfeld in the way that the show organically builds its episodic vignettes around the star's stand-up shtick. With Louie, though, the set-up primarily focuses on lonely middle-aged angst. Or, as Louie declares in one of the clubs he plays to appreciative audiences, "I know too much about life to have any optimism." His mantra goes, "I've seen my best years," but thankfully, this show gives us Louie at his fitful best (unlike the HBO sitcom debacle of Lucky Louie a few years back that would have derailed a less resilient career).
Divorced at 42, with two young daughters he dotes on, Louie is too sour and smart to be a true sad sack, but his ambling acid-laced misadventures have a raw and revealingly witty electricity, especially when he's sparring with his comedian buddies. Tonight's second episode opens with an astonishingly frank fly-on-the-wall observation of a comics' poker game, as Louie and his buds relentlessly grill their openly gay and blissfully unflappable peer Rick Crom. In a future episode, Louie comes to blows with another professional clown over their political (and politically incorrect) differences. We're asked to laugh at the pain, which turns out not to be too much to ask.
Especially in next Tuesday's episode, which devotes a long and hilariously wrong segment to Louie's visit to a doctor played with devilish glee by Ricky Gervais. His specialty appears to be cruel sarcasm, as he badgers an increasingly uneasy Louie with horrible cancer and AIDS jokes, while telling him "You look like diarrhea" and making him strip, only to insult his patient's manhood. "What's wrong with you?" cries Louie. But what's wrong turns out to be the right stuff for Louie, which taps a deep vein of white male self-pity that somehow never feels as old as Louie himself insists he feels.
As always where FX is concerned, enter and indulge at your own risk.
Rescue Me premieres Tuesday at 10/9 on FX; Louie follows at 11/10c.
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