Denis Leary Doesn’t Give a Sh%t!

LAST SEEN UNCONSCIOUS AND TRAPPED in a burning beach house during Rescue Me’s Season 3 cliffhanger, Tommy Gavin lives on this summer as TV’s most morally complex character. With The Sopranos over and done, it’s time for Rescue Me to claim the mantle of best show, with Tommy Gavin as its compelling—disgusting, lovable, drunk, sexy, insane—central figure.

Tommy is selfish, self-destructive and ethically challenged—a scoundrel who also happens to be a hero, or perhaps vice versa. A lapsed Catholic who still totes around the steaming heap of guilt dumped on him by years of parochial school, Tommy’s rakish approach to life makes him impossibly appealing—and tragic, of course, when he tries and fails to do better.

“He’s actually based on two friends who are firefighters,” Mr. Leary said. “I talk to these two guys all the time, just to catch up on what’s going on with them and their families—and every time I do, there’s three more episodes right there.”

Tommy’s also an egomaniac, and an equal-opportunity asshole, which of course makes him irresistible to women. Here in Season 4, Tommy’s marriage is in the toilet (he’s always treated it like a job that he was free to punch out of when it got too demanding), but it isn’t over, though it probably should be. In the course of Rescue Me’s first three seasons, Tommy had affairs with everyone from his brother’s ex-wife (as revenge for his brother getting involved with his ex) to Sheila (Callie Thorne), the 9/11 widow of his best friend (whose ghost regularly talks to Tommy), to Sheila’s kid’s teacher (who was banging Sheila’s teenage son). And he nearly always got caught.

Tommy struggles with alcoholism (it got him into a fistfight with his cousin, a priest), probably because he also deals with a lot of death, and not just the people he loses in burning buildings: During the first three seasons of the series, his mother (natural causes), his brother (a cop shot on a stakeout) and his young son (hit by a drunk driver) all died.

The mammoth death cloud hanging over all of it, of course, is 9/11; Tommy’s massive case of survivor’s guilt is marbled through his psyche and the story lines. Yet Rescue Me’s writers regularly perform the comic alchemy of transforming even that darkest material into unexpected laughs—the kind of tension release that comes from sticking a pin to a balloon. In the black-humor world of firefighters, Tommy is a champion ball-buster in a game where needling your colleagues is an Olympic-level blood sport.

Yet what gives Rescue Me its tang, its heft, its compulsive watchability, is this: Antihero though he may be, Tommy Gavin is still a guy who makes his living saving the lives of strangers, even if he sees it as penance for all the moral disorder he creates in the rest of his life.

“The redeeming factor for Tommy—for all these guys, really—is what they do and how they do it,” Mr. Leary said, tucking into a tuna-salad sandwich. “There’s a lot of forgiveness in the fact that they run into burning buildings for a living. There’s always a forgiveness factor.”

“Tommy is dangerous enough to be a complete mess,” said Peter Tolan, who co-created the show with Mr. Leary and produces and writes it with him. “That’s the real magic act. Tommy’s a real dumb shit—yet, because of Denis, more people than not are pulling for him and sympathetic to him.”

Mr. Leary, who’s been with his wife for 25 years and has two teenage kids, shares little with Tommy beyond a sense of humor—that needling, sarcastic edge that blossomed “at 12 or 13, the cognitive years, when I figured out that everything they told me at Catholic school was wrong—that everything they said was bad was actually good.”

Denis Leary Doesn’t Give a Sh%t!