Return of the best series on TV

Let me say it flat out: Rescue Me is the best show on TV. And its fifth season, which kicks off tonight on FX, promises to be as intense, gripping - and hilarious - as each of the previous four. More so, perhaps.

Rescue Me stars Denis Leary as TV's most morally complex character - Tommy Gavin. Like the best TV creations, he's at once hysterically funny, serious as a heart attack, a victim of his own bad choices and a product of his best instincts.

Like Tony Soprano, the only other central character on a TV series who has ever matched - or exceeded - Tommy as a fascinating figure of conflicting emotions, Tommy Gavin is his own worst enemy. He's capable of houndishly despicable behavior. Yet like Tony, Tommy is ruled by something more than his id. Call them his better angels, despite his ambivalent (bordering on antipathetic) relationship with the Catholic Church.

Which is what makes Tommy Gavin such a great firefighter. If he believes in one single thing, it's his job. But his faith in himself and his profession was shaken on 9/11 - and now he carries around a massive case of survivor's guilt, which will rise up yet again in the new season.

That horrible anniversary - 9/11 - doesn't hit all of us the way it does Tommy Gavin and the veteran crew of his firehouse. It's the subject that dare not speak its name, if only because it is ever-present in their minds, in their dreams, in their subconscious. Each has learned to deal with it in his own way, many of them self-destructively.

In the new season, 9/11 - which has floated in and out of this series over the previous four seasons - returns to center stage. Specifically, a French writer (Karina Lombard) has come to New York to do research - including interviewing firefighters - for a commemorative book on the subject for the 10th anniversary. By the third or fourth episode, Tommy is on the verge of sleeping with her - and everyone else wants to.

But talking about 9/11 lights the fuse on Tommy's barely contained demons. So does the death of his father (Charles Durning), who quietly kicked the bucket while sitting next to Tommy at a Mets' game, at the end of Season 4. By the sixth episode of this new season, Tommy has relapsed after a full year of sobriety (he even got his one-year chip from AA).

As a result, he once again starts seeing the ghosts who have haunted him from the beginning of the series.

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