Denis Leary, with his rat-a-tat delivery and Irish wise-guy persona, has too often jabbed right up to the line of self-parody. With Rescue Me, he redeems himself by doing what we always suspected he could do: really act. As New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin, a heavy drinker in the throes of a divorce, Leary has created a hilarious, depressing, and surprisingly endearing character. The guy's haunted, literally, by the 9/11 death of his cousin Jimmy (James McCaffrey), a fellow firefighter -- and rather than forge workable relationships with the living, Gavin hangs out with Jimmy's ghost.
The premise isn't as precious as it sounds, mainly because the station house is steeped in spirits: The 9/11 fallout is everywhere, from Gavin's soon-to-be ex (Andrea Roth), who wants to escape her widow-packed neighborhood so desperately she's looking at farmhouses in Kansas, to the introverted fireman (John Scurti) who writes bad smoke-and-girder-laced poetry in his basement. These are death-weighted people, a fact gracefully underscored by the image of Gavin, heading home after a binge, dogged by a line of ghosts of those he failed to save.
For the most part, ''Rescue'''s writers (who include Leary and Peter Tolan, the cocreator of Leary's short-lived ABC comedy, ''The Job'') have kept this other-worldly vein subtle -- aside from cousin Jimmy, the show's spirits are so silent and illusory they could be mere memories. Unfortunately, the July 28 episode slid into gimmickry when a girl who died in a car accident turned her gore-smeared face to Leary and pleaded, ''I want to go home!'' Gavin needs to confine his ghostly meet and greets to Jimmy -- if he starts chatting up the undead regularly, he'll become Haley Joel Osment with suspenders and a flask. Besides, such plotlines detract from the show's piquant flesh-and-blood world. Like its FX brethren, ''Nip/Tuck'' and ''The Shield,'' Rescue is fascinated by nasty, charismatic machismo. Misogyny is practically institutionalized in this firehouse (the station's hated alarm system -- a computerized female voice that sends the men off to work -- is the ultimate intrusive nag). Bonding often comes in the form of cynical -- and very funny -- banter (one firefighter fondly recalls ''all that p---y I was getting after 9/11'').
But ''Rescue'' always dips back into the pain fueling each day. Leary's Gavin is an endless heart-breaker: taking a nip of now-needed courage before a fire; reaching out to his estranged wife -- jerkily, jokily -- and botching it; talking to his closest friend, a ghost. He's the very definition of a man being purified by fire.