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Denis Leary is back on the job in "Rescue Me" simultaneously saving his TV career and the summer TV season. Fans who admired his dryly, comic ABC series about a flawed cop, "The Job," will note the similarities in his new series about New York City firefighters, post-Sept. 11. Once again, Leary is teaming with writer Peter Tolan, who suffered through his ABC experience on "The Job." As in that show, Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, has a troubled marriage that is the byproduct of his dangerous job.

Tommy is a firefighter with a dry sense of humor surrounded by a group of realistic characters who are intentionally and unintentionally funny. One firefighter copes by writing poetry. Bad poetry. His way of relieving stress leads to a comical exchange in which a dumb firefighter confuses Emily Dickinson with a Dickinson better-known to TV audiences. The most notable difference in the two shows concerns the language. This being cable, it can be much more extreme and realistic than it could be on network television. In an early scene tonight that establishes the tone, Gavin fires off a stream of curse words in a speech to recruits.

Fortunately, the words aren't quite that extreme after that. However, a provocative sex scene and a disturbing violent scene in the second episode demonstrate that this series earns its mature audience rating. Since the show is twice as long as "The Job," at an hour, there is plenty of time for the humor to be balanced with the life-threatening drama. The series also makes a few risky artistic choices that won't please everyone. In one, Gavin sees and talks to ghosts of people he couldn't save, including his cousin, Jimmy Keefe (James McCaffrey). Jimmy died on Sept. 11 but is still there for Tommy to discuss emotions and fears that he is unable to share with friends who are alive. And in a funny bit in the third episode, subtitles are used to explain what Tommy and his father really feel about each other during a telephone conversation.

Tonight's pilot, "Guts," is the least entertaining of the first three episodes, partly because so much time is spent introducing the firefighters and their loved ones.

Among the most notable characters is Jack McGee as Chief Reilly, a pro football fan who fears the growing number of metrosexuals in the world. A scene in which some younger firefighters talk about straight men who are interested in looking good dresses up the pilot quite nicely.

The episode also deals with Gavin's deteriorating home life and includes a fiery, realistic exchange between him and his estranged wife, Janet (Andrea Roth).

Next week's stronger episode, "Gay," focuses on Chief Reilly's violent response to the claims made by a retired firefighter in a New York tabloid that a number of firemen who died on Sept. 11 were gay. In a comical subplot, Gavin goes undercover and bribes his kids to get information about his wife's plans to head to California with her new boyfriend.

Compared to some of the putrid behavior of married men who keep the firefighters busy, Gavin's volatile life with his wife is civil. In one comical scene inspired by a real-life incident, firefighters deal with a pungent problem invented by an angry husband.

This smart show smells like a winner even if the episodes aren't always sharply focused. Certainly not as focused as the FX promotional push that should help it become the summer's hot show.

In an interview that also combined the serious and comical, Leary and Tolan agreed the timing is right for the series.

"It was the perfect time to do this show because you create heroes in American culture only to tear them down and firefighters were such exaggerated heroes after 9/1 1," said Tolan. "How long was it after 9/1 1 that the firefighters had to march for a pay increase, which they didn't get?"

Leary, who founded the Leary Firefighters Foundation five years ago to help firefighters and their families, realizes the show has to respectfully deal with the memories of Sept. 11 to avoid being accused of exploiting it for dramatic reasons.

"It's a very interesting place dramatically to start out with a bunch of guys that survived this horrible event, who were directly affected by it, but still have to jump on the truck. You can't find a richer spot for drama than that," he said.

Leary also sounded a warning to those leery of too much adult content.

"For the most part," said Leary, "the guys at FX really . . . are pushing us to go as far as we can within reason."

Steamy content aside, the success of the series will depend on whether viewers embrace Leary's complicated character.

"If you watch the rest of the series," said Leary, "he starts to figure out his own emotionally closed-off, screwed-up Irish man fireman way of dealing with (his pain). . . . Is Tommy better off not having ghosts, or is he better off having this ghost cousin who he can talk to? Well, I think we'll find out as we go through the process."

He is certain about one thing. He is much better off being on FX than on ABC, which mismanaged "The Job."

"Thank God (ABC) canceled it so we could do this," said Leary.


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