In Rescue Me's firehouse, women are best known as knob polishers, fistfights are encouraged, and a man bearing banana bread will be greeted with an epithet that rhymes with ''pick.''
It's not a nice show, but it's so damn good. In a TV landscape featuring either chilly professional men (like FX's Nip/Tuck duo) or neutered idiot husbands (to start a list is to court depression), it's a relief to see a show a smart show built around the interactions of charismatic, pissy, macho guys. The third episode of Rescue Me's second season is entitled, simply, ''Balls,'' and if that wrinkles your nose, this is not the series for you.
FX's sister network, Fox, of course, spits out plenty of blue-collar, un-PC button pushers á la Married. . .With Children. But the key words here are smart and charismatic. Cocreator Denis Leary has invented simply one of the best characters on TV as rageful, prideful, ammonia-tongued firefighter Tommy Gavin. The season picks up with Gavin tracking his ex-wife (Andrea Roth), who took off with the kids. Also, Gavin's girlfriend, Sheila (Callie Thorne, one great, braying broad), is pregnant. This complication is all the pricklier since she's the widow of Gavin's cousin Jimmy, a firefighter who died on 9/11.
The pressures have sent Gavin on yet another bender. Rescue Me captures not just the drama of alcoholism but the awful weariness of it: The man's relentless, joyless intake of booze is as exhausting as those endless shots of heroin-pricked pupils in Requiem for a Dream.
The darkness is counterbalanced by Gavin's bantering, smart-ass crew, played by a flawless supporting cast. Particularly good are War of the Worlds' John Scurti as Tommy's quietly kindhearted best friend and Diane Farr (who also appeared on Leary's ABC sitcom, The Job) as Laura, the station's token female firefighter. Laura's like a sharp blast of potpourri, and it's a measure of the show's intelligence that she's witty, capable, and perhaps not entirely up to the job.
Those ghostly appearances by Jimmy (James McCaffrey) such a big part of season 1 have been minimal so far. But Rescue Me is still laced with mentions of the 9/11 tragedy mainly people telling Tommy to get over it (the series loves to poke at the discord between the healed and the wrecked). Unfortunately, Tommy's still having otherworldly visions. Now they're of Jesus, most notably scrubbing down the blood he streaked on Gavin's bed. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, except that Jesus is a thoughtful houseguest and that Rescue Me's creators feel their show's not unique enough without these visual gimmicks. They're dead wrong.