This is a bittersweet night for FX, as it prepares to bid farewell to one of its longtime signature series — the bawdy firehouse dramedy Rescue Me, whose seventh and final season will wrap this fall to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — and in an ironic twist, it's going head to head against a new season of Damages, the riveting legal thriller the network dropped after three low-rated seasons, but which was rescued from oblivion by DirecTV. (Unlike the Friday Night Lights situation, in which NBC aired the show after the DirecTV run, Damages will air exclusively on DirecTV. So if you're not a subscriber, it won't be that tough a choice.)
Want more Matt Roush? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!
As the final chapter of Rescue Me begins, unsparing as ever as it alternates between raunchy dark comedy and lacerating drama, anti-hero firefighter legend Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) remains a haunted and harried man, beset by ghosts and recurring guilt-mares over the mess he's made of his life.
"Normal is dead and buried underneath Ground Zero," he tells his once-again-pregnant wife Janet (the game Andrea Roth) when she demands he pledge to be a "normal, close-to-home dad" as a condition of her bringing this at-risk pregnancy to term. (Why would she ever think he'd be able to live up to these terms?) "I'm just trying to make sense out of what's left above ground," he tries to rationalize, though Janet's is not the most sympathetic shoulder to cry on. Especially when she's behind the wheel.
Tommy is no longer in the driver's seat on any front. He's understandably paranoid when Janet begins bonding with her former nemesis, and Tommy's former lover, Sheila (Callie Thorne), fueling his guilt over the fate of Sheila's son and his godson Damien, who was paralyzed on the job last season. His role as AA sponsor to his rebellious daughter Colleen also takes some troubling twists, leading to an explosive finish to the season opener.
It's little wonder Tommy takes refuge in the raucous macho firehouse environment, currently suffering a 13-day drought without fire-related calls. The bored crew banters about Jersey Shore racism and crotch rash while studly Franco (Daniel Sunjata) gives "Black Shawn" (Larenz Tate) some pointed advice about his romantic future with Colleen, one of the show's more fraught relationships.
Can Tommy ever be fully redeemed, or (embedded in the show's symbolic cry-for-help title) saved? "10 years of grief and anguish and blame. You want to face that empty-handed?" taunts one of his more persistent ghosts as Tommy once again battles the lure of the bottle. Rescue Me is going into its twilight fully locked and loaded.
Whereas Damages, still sleekly suspenseful and lethally cynical, reboots by jumping three years ahead in the lives of cunning power lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her estranged protégé Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), whose crusading idealism is challenged by her latest very topical cause: the unregulated and possibly illegal excesses of a private-security military contractor in Afghanistan.
Patty warns Ellen away from this "dangerous target," not so much for her safety but because of the steep odds of success. "There's only one way to try a case, Ellen. Whatever way allows you to win it." That's our Patty — who in an amusing subplot reveals new ways of how to be a boss from hell.
In classic Damages fashion, the deadly stakes are revealed in a flash-forward framework involving a prisoner being tortured in a war zone. Could it be Ellen's old friend Chris (Chris Messina), a former soldier for hire in the "private army" of the High Star military security firm? Ellen's pressuring him for intel as she prepares her case, putting them both in the crosshairs of an unscrupulous fixer (Dylan Baker at his creepiest) protecting the interests of boss man John Goodman. Once again, what a cast.
As Ellen risks all to take on a fearsome new Goliath, she's still wondering aloud to Patty whether the sacrifices are worth it. (Patty's answer: "If you have to ask the question, you already have the answer.") Trust me, Damages is worth it. And for those without access to DirecTV, worth the wait.
Rescue Me premieres Wednesday, 10/9c, on FX
Damages premieres Wednesday, 10/9c, on DirecTV