In the 2005 season finale of FX's "Rescue Me," Firefighter Tommy Gavin is pictured driving along in his pick up with Jesus Christ as a passenger. For Gavin, played by actor/writer Denis Leary, JC is just one of many visions that come to him from episode to episode. Certainly not a scene from the venerable series "Emergency," but an audience pleaser nonetheless. So much so, that FX has ordered up a 3rd season of the sometimes irreverent, always controversial, "Rescue Me."
Thanks to television and films, civilians can now travel behind the firelines into a World that is rarely experienced by anyone but the chosen few. It's this inside, personal look at life in the firehouse, and on the fireground, that makes fire-rescue work such compelling TV. In short, by inviting the viewer to become one of the bravest, the producers have stumbled across the keys to the kingdom of dramatic and reality TV.
Following the huge financial success of Ron Howard's "Backdraft" ($277 Million) and "Ladder 49" ($120 million), TV and motion picture producers began flocking to firehouses for more material. The most successful genre have been docu-dramas and documentaries, which utilize existing footage and re-enactments to illustrate interviews with key storytellers.
Least successful have been reality shows like "The Bravest" (2001) and NBC's short-lived "Firehouse" (2002). Both programs were well done and production values were extremely high. But the pair suffered greatly in the ratings. Why? Take note of the date, 2001. Bravest aired its first episode on September 15, 2001, just 4 days after the WTC disaster. A great many FDNY firefighters who appeared in the show, filmed during the summer of 2001, were either deceased or missing.
Even though NBC's "Firehouse" aired in one of the hottest slots on network television (replacing Dateline:NBC at 8pm Fridays) it too suffered from 9/11 backlash. Perhaps the programs were too distressing for the general public, evoking the memories and hurt of 9/11. But that was over four years ago, and time has apparently healed those wounds.
"Firehouse USA, " Discovery Channel's recent limited run weekly series, served as the band-aid. Filmed in Boston with the members of Engine 37 and Ladder 26, "Firehouse USA" is not the fire-rescue version of COPS. It is a show with substance, because the antagonist isn't another drug-dealing; wife-beating, drunk -- it's much bigger. It's Mother Nature at her worst. The format has been attempted before in 1993-94's "Firefighters," but those producers failed to accom-plish the three most important goals of any good documentary -- identify the antagonist, inform and entertain.
"Firehouse USA" does all three very well. How? The producers use members right off the fireline to serve as storytellers. Who better to describe what it's like to do combat face-to-face with "the beast." Discovery's series tells the story not just of the fiery antagonist, but of the soldiers who ride the rigs to do battle. This ain't no easy task 'cause us jakes aren't noted for our public speakin' prowess. But amazingly, the producers have somehow discovered a half dozen articulate on-the-job firefighters to communicate with the audience.
The visual appeal of this program is two-tiered, involving its down and dirty shooting style and the go for it attitude of the AVID editors. I've learned that when shooting the scene of any fire or disaster, the best material is often found when the camera has just begun to roll -- or the operator is moving from one position to another. Nothing goes to waste on "Firehouse USA" and the editors place these short and sweet gems to good use by helping embellish the longer, more conventional shots.
Filming real firefighters, as I have since 1981, is a walk in the park. There's plenty of action wherever you point the lens. But recreating the life of the firefighter isn't a simple task. And so, walking our walk and talking our talk has been a tough sell in Hollywood, as program producers attempt to combine solid acting and good production with technical accuracy.
In 1995, ABC was successful in its made-for-TV-Movie entitled "Philly Heat", based on PFD's famed Engine Co. 50. Veteran actor Peter Boyle gave a convincing performance as a Philly Battalion Chief, and the show would've been a great series and probably a huge success. But Heat was costly to produce -- twice that of a similar ER and Cop dramas, in which the production team has complete control of the environment.
So leave it to Denis Leary, firefighting's most visible public advocate, to develop the definitive fire-rescue series -- one that really works. In "Rescue Me" -- soon to enter its third season -- Leary's team has taken on the issue of cost by abandoning the traditional Hollywood grind of using a single motion picture film camera. Instead, the series DP uses several HDTV cameras, eliminating raw film costs, processing and and lengthy multi take setups. The crew rockets through each episode, making the turnaround in six shooting days, as compared to the 10 days grind of other weekly series.
Of all the firefighting dramas ever produced, Leary's is most like the real thing. He treats the firehouse for what it is -- a family! Kooky at times, emotionally distraught at others, but always there for one another when they step off the rig to do battle with the beast. Don't expect the pablum of "Ladder-49." Leary and his writing partner Peter Tolan treat the firefighting family with borderline irreverance, much like FX's "The Badge" or HBO's "The Wire." "Rescue Me" has humor, conflict and an identifiable antagonist, all of which are essential for making any successful drama. The' production team has discovered the secret formula for firefighting drama.
It's one thing to be brave -- another to be stupid. Without knowing it, Leary and his team, as well as the producers of "Firehouse USA," have paid firefighters the greatest tribute by reminding us that life and family are precious and can never be replaced. My hope is that others in our ranks will recognize this tip and take its message to heart.
Title image banner: (left to right) Denis Leary (Rescue Me), Kim Raver (Third Watch), Eddie Cibrian (Third Watch), Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth (Emergency), Marjorie Monaghan (Rescue-77), Joaquin Phoenix (Ladder-49), John Travolta (Ladder 49).