— Ten years ago this month, something horrifying happened at the World Trade Center in New York. At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine that just three years later, someone would try and make sense of the events of 9/11 by turning it into a television series.
Yet that's exactly what happened in 2004, when Peter Tolan and Denis Leary came up with "Rescue Me." And over the next seven seasons, FX's show would explore the fine line between the living and the dead, blending melancholy and dark humor as it focused on the firefighters who lived — and died — on that September day.
"Rescue Me" ends Sept. 7, four days before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. The series never caught on in a massive way, yet earned a loyal cult following in the millions — including many firefighters. But it also serves as an object lesson for what happens when television attempts to fictionalize real-world tragedy.
From the start, FX president John Landgraf recalled how careful they had to be with tone. "We knew we were treading on hallowed ground, and we knew we were doing it in a series that could be crude and transgressive," he said. "There had to be a sense of respect and reverence in the subject material. We did sweat it."
Tolan said that re-creating 9/11 for the pilot "creeped out" many of the cast and crew. "When we did that, it was a very quiet set that day," he said.
Landgraf helped ensure the show never fell to the wayside. "I was their loyal collaborator," he said. "I read every draft of every script, gave notes on every episode and watched every rough cut. We all did it collectively."
Other than "Rescue Me," television hasn't had much luck trying to turn 9/11 into more than a documentary or short-subject film. Television writers can imagine the end of the world via pollution (so long as there's a nice portal to take humans into a safer time, as in Fox's upcoming "Terra Nova"), or the nuking of Los Angeles (as "24" did in 2007).
But a story sprung from a reality like 9/11 — insofar as there has ever been an event like that — appears to turn scribes mute. The upcoming series "Homeland" on Showtime may take place in a post-9/11 world, but the destroyed towers do not loom as sharply as they did in "Rescue Me."
There's a reason why a show like "Rescue Me" is such a rare bird, said former network executive Tim Brooks. "When you tie something into a specific historical event, you limit its longevity because the event becomes more distant as you go along. If you tie into something like 9/11, you will seem dated quickly."
Brooks also knows that mass audiences simply don't flock to difficult, depressing subjects — no matter how well made the show may be. "A lot of people are not going to want to watch a show about such a painful time," said Brooks, who also wrote "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present." " 'Two and a Half Men' and 'American Idol' are big hits for a reason. People want good old-fashioned escapist TV."
'We weren't angels'
Yet "Rescue Me's" niche audience was loyal to their curmudgeonly, tormented anti-hero (Leary as firefighter Tommy Gavin). Firefighters turned out to be among some of the most fervent fans, saying the show aided in transforming the perception of their profession post 9/11.
"It showed we weren't angels and were just doing a job," said Lt. John Kilbane, a fan of the show and a 24-year veteran working at Rescue Squad 1 in Cleveland, Ohio. "We're one functionally dysfunctional family and the show got that, it really did. It covered both sides of the coin."
Still, even seven seasons in, there was almost as much delicacy surrounding "Rescue Me's" finale as there was at the show's inception. At one point, Tolan and Leary toyed with having Gavin commit suicide, then discarded it as being too bleak. Instead, Tommy is expected to find a certain kind of rescue of his own.
"Tommy will feel good about it if he takes one or two steps to proving to himself and getting the message everyone wants him to get: that it wasn't his fault that his cousin died (on 9/11), and to look at his kids and live in the now, not the past," said Leary.
The timing of the finale was both fortuitous and carefully planned, said Landgraf. "Peter and Denis and I were conscious that where to end the series was a choice about where we as a society contextualize and place 9/11 on its anniversary. If we put it on the week of 9/11, we thought we ought to be saying something appropriate and meaningful to the occasion, and what it all means 10 years on, in terms of the landscape of the heart and how one deals with grief."
In many ways, Americans have moved on about 9/11: The NFL is kicking off its first full day of the new season on the anniversary, for example. But so long as television in general remains unsure how to deal with the subject, it seems unlikely that any series will ever be able to say they crawled inside the minds of those still mourning the tragic day more effectively than "Rescue Me" did.
"TV should try and convey these kinds of events," said Brooks. "But can it? These are multi-faceted events that affect thousands of people, and have changed the nation politically and socially. 'Rescue Me' worked because it never seemed to be a show about 9/11 — any more than 'Hamlet' is about a Danish king. It wasn't Shakespeare, but it explored human nature and frailties the way great art does, and for that it will be remembered."