Denis Leary Denis Leary

Few things are more satisfying than watching a great episode of TV with an appreciative audience. Such was the case Wednesday night when FX screened the Rescue Me finale (my second viewing, but my first on the big screen) at New York's grand Ziegfeld Theater, a benefit for Denis Leary's Firefighters Foundation. Fittingly, a number of NYFD's finest were in the crowd, laughing at all the right places and cheering at many others (and maintaining a respectful silence when things got serious, which never lasted for very long).

It was a triumphant end to one of cable's most distinctive (if sometimes maddening) series, a well-timed tribute to the 343 firefighters who died on September 11, 2001 — the tragedy that inspired, haunted and informed this show and its mercurial co-creator/star Denis Leary from the get-go.

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Being in Tommy Gavin's head was always an unsettling place to be, and that was made startlingly evident one last time as the episode opens on a dream sequence that feels all too real. Lou ( John Scurti, making the most of his swan song) delivers a stirring eulogy to his fallen brethren in the wake of last week's cataclysmic fire — except this isn't the real funeral. Lou, it turns out, was the only fatality of the explosion, harrowingly replayed in flashback as Tommy fills out the paperwork. A task that nearly drives him to drink — yet another fake-out as we watch Tommy down some Scotch and trash the office, except he really didn't.Much of the episode revolves around Tommy's "should I stay or should I go" dilemma. He flirts with retirement to satisfy his very pregnant wife Janet, but those who know him best know better. "You need two things to survive: sex and fire. One's no good without the other," coos Sheila (

Callie Thorne, nailing it as usual) as she straddles the appalled Tommy. He sees the light — or rather, his younger daughter Katy does — after he clashes hilarious at a "sharing playground" with an emasculated "Mr. Mom" and several aggressively uptight mommys. "I don't think this is going to work — you and the real world," declares a world-weary Katy.This scene got the second-biggest response from the Ziegfeld audience. Top honors went to the fabulously slapstick scene of Lou's ashes ("Ashes" being the episode's title) exploding all over his buddies in the car. It's a "Lou-mageddon" as Tommy and the gang are covered in Lou's remains, and we're left with the image of Garrity squatting over the box to shake out what's left of their beloved leader. With a ceremonial scattering of Lou looming, these Keystone Firefighters decide to supplement what's left of him with a box of Duncan Hines red velvet chocolate cake mix. Father Mickey isn't fooled, but hey, it's hard to find grey food, as Tommy rather desperately rationalizes.Even as Garrity continues shaking Lou-ash from his ears, we're disarmed by Lou's letter-from-beyond eulogy, read by Tommy, who ends up describing himself as a "battle-scarred, haunted, formerly drunken Irish a—hole who screws up his life like other people breathe." As the bagpipes wail "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," we high-tail it back to the Gavin house, where Janet goes into preposterously sudden labor — straining credulity even by Rescue Me's loose standards — and Tommy delivers his new son (named Shea, the least objectionable variation on Lou's name) before passing out. When he wakes, Janet begs him to return to his vocation before she kills him, a not altogether convincing reversal, but perhaps inevitable in this show's cockeyed worldview.We end with a call back to the series' beginning, as Tommy addresses a new gaggle of probies, standing before a backdrop of names of 9/11's fallen heroes. Franco is introduced as the bellowing new CO, and as Tommy retreats to his car, he's greeted by a new ghost. Lou, naturally, as undyingly droll as ever.And on this Topper of a buddy act, Rescue Me draws to a close, as happy an ending as the circumstances allow and that we could hope for. Well done, Mr. Leary.

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