Rescue Me

(Unnecessary) spoiler alert: Rescue Me's Tommy Gavin isn't dead.

Even a show with a penchant for keeping dead characters around as ghosts couldn't kill off its lead, right? But last season's finale, which ended with Tommy (series star and co-creator Denis Leary) bleeding out after being shot by his Uncle Teddy (Lenny Clarke), wasn't a total cheat: Tommy fades away just long enough to get a frightening vision of his afterlife.

Exclusive: Rescue Me's creators dish on the shocking season finale

"We wanted to acknowledge the cliffhanger and have a little bit of both ways," co-creator and executive producer Peter Tolan tells TVGuide.com. "You're starting the sixth year of a series and your lead character is just as messed up as he was on Day One. We needed a way for this guy to turn it around, and ... thought a near-death experience would certainly make him step back and examine his life a little more."

But while Tommy is shaken by what he sees, any life changes are going to take some time. "We would hope that he would learn something from his experience," Leary says. "But part of the joy of writing the guy and playing the guy is that he's extremely stubborn and hard-headed. It sometimes takes awhile for the message to get through his thick Irish skull."

And his family isn't making things any easier. Teddy and Mickey (Robert John Burke) are keeping close tabs on Tommy to make sure he stays away from the sauce, while life at home with estranged wife Janet (Andrea Roth) is complicated by the new drinking habit of their oldest daughter, Colleen (Natalie Distler). Plus, Sheila (Callie Thorne), Tommy's former lover, is still after Tommy to get her son out of the FDNY.

Check out photos of the Rescue Me cast

"Tommy has finally had something happen to him personally that was more along the lines of what had happened to people all around him," Leary says. "After Tommy gets shot, there's definitely a lot of retribution in Season 6 between Janet and Sheila. They actually join forces a little bit. What happens to Tommy is surprising, in that it joins everybody that's involved with him together against what he did with his life."

"They're right to go, 'This is bulls---. We know who you are — you're hopeless," Tolan adds, noting that even the gunshot isn't Tommy's final wakeup call. "Tommy wants results overnight and he wants everybody else to wipe the slate clean. It just doesn't work that way. ... In the fifth episode, he really hits rock-bottom and that involves him putting somebody else at risk, too."

With no one else to turn to, Tommy seeks the advice of Father Phil, a priest played by guest star Peter Gallagher (The O.C., Californication). "It's sort of like talking to a supposed believer who maybe doesn't fully believe himself," Tolan says of Tommy and Father Phil's relationship. "[Tommy's] searching for answers about religion and faith and God's plan, which has been a constant idea through the life of the series. What's God's master plan if these rotten things happen in life?"

Meanwhile, the city is looking to shut down firehouses in the recession, and Tommy's shooting has moved his firehouse to the top of the hit list.

Despite that, Tommy still has the ear of best friend Lou (John Scurti), who may be the key to helping Tommy sort out his life.

"There's really not a lot of people in Tommy's world that get to talk to him like Lou does," Scurti says. "When they're not at each others' throats, they really care for each other. Those two characters keep bouncing off each other and one keeps trying to tell the other, 'Dude, you're heading into a car crash and you don't know it.'"

Check out our set visit video for more Season 6 scoop: