By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play contributor
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus — and when they talk on the phone, they’re divorced by a split-screen. We learned this from 1960s-era romantic comedies, and “Rescue Me,” of all the damned shows in creation, reminded us yet again in last night’s episode, “Press.” Andrea warning Tommy not to come home too early, Colleen pouring liquid bubblegum into the anxious Shawn’s ear as they planned their wedding — these conversations and others were separated by an actual, graphic divide, a sharp black line bisecting the screen and putting the men and women into actual, observable boxes.
It was a good, jokey way to represent the show’s sexual politics, which more than any other element seemed defined by the standup comedy traditions that forged star and co-producer Denis Leary. (“Women, can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot em — but seriously, folks, I love women! Let’s have a big round of applause for the ladies in the house.”) It was also unsettling. The more sensitive and caring these guys become, the more emasculated they seem, like big, hairy plush toys. In his wedding-planning conversation with his fiancee, Shawn paces as nervously as a little kid who has to use the bathroom but is afraid to tell mommy because he should have gone before they left the house. (“Forty-five hundred bucks for a dress?” he growls after talking to a starry-eyed Colleen eyeballing gowns in a bridal shop. “That shit better be made out of crusted diamonds and shit.”) And poor Tommy Gavin just looks miserable, like a guy sitting in a doctor’s waiting room for news that he just knows will be horrifying.
Speaking of which: Mortality. Purgatory. Hell. Enjoyable and well-written as these first three episodes have been, they have a bit of a Tony Soprano-in-coma-land feeling, as though the series’ continual undertow of off-off-Broadway existential theater is finally bubbling up and becoming explicit. (We’re seeing a roll call of dearly departed characters, the “Rescue Me” version of that mini-montage in the credits of season 5 of “The Wire” reminding us of all the great supporting characters who’d gotten killed over the years.) The relative peace and quiet in these first three episodes feels like a classic “Rescue Me” rope-a-dope strategy. Like a horror movie lulling the audience with banter and slapstick and then bringing out the “Scream” killer in the robe and mask, this series has often settled into relationship comedy mode just long enough to haul the Anvil of Tragedy high up above the proscenium arch and swing it into position over some unsuspecting sap’s head.
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PressPlay founder and publisher Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site.