What you'll see: Is "Rescue Me" in need of triage? This has always been a tightly wound drama centered on one of TV's most likable unlikable characters. Fireman Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) is a reformed souse whose friends and family give him all the more reason to twist open a bottle. Life is tough and death is everywhere, from comrades who fell during 9/11 to victims of fires to Tommy's young son, who was killed by a drunken driver in an earlier season. So Tommy uses a nasty wit and bad behavior to scrub images out of his brain.
But the show has spun out of control since last year, when Tommy's brother, who was having an affair with Tommy's ex-wife, who was having an affair with Tommy, was killed, leaving Tommy to care for the son his ex-wife was carrying (see what I mean?). Time was, the searing tragedy of Tommy's life was balanced by scenes of him and his fellow firefighters blowing off steam with pranks and macho talk. Now Tommy's life is a hard-to-believe mess and the other firefighters all have troubles of their own.
When the show was in its prime, in its first two seasons, it veered wildly between Tommy's rants and benders and scenes of his fellow firemen making their way through life with rough humor that gave the show the flavor of a male-focused "Sex in the City." Now the joking firemen provide relief from the series' ill-paced and fragmented plots. "Rescue Me" has devolved into a collection of mediocre skits, rather than a continuing drama with a compelling theme at its core (just witness how the suicide death of Chief Reilly, just a few episodes ago, seems to have faded away so quickly -- a sign, perhaps, that the character's death was for shock value more than anything else).
"Rescue Me" needs to push forward, though, and realize it's a compelling storyline, not just wacky antics and troubled characters, that make a program watchable. Ratings (the premiere garnered a 1.1 Nielsen rating for 18-to-49-year-olds, about 1% of total U.S. households with a TV) this year have softened compared with seasons past, making it seem like others agree.
When you'll see it: Wednesdays, 10 p.m., on News Corp.'s FX (the program just ran its seventh episode of the season earlier this week).
What's at stake? FX has developed a reputation for juggling a number of high-quality dramas centered around very flawed protagonists. With "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" getting long in the tooth, heating up "Rescue Me" would seem like a pretty good idea.
Who's onboard? The program typically attracts ads aimed at the young and male: Samuel Adams beer, the DVD-release of the comic-booky war movie "300," the movie premiere of "Bourne Ultimatum." Warner Bros. and Volkswagen helped sponsor the season premiere this year, and ad breaks contained commercials only from those two marketers.
Insert product here? FX has done an amazing job with "Rescue Me," selling product-placement deals that have been decidedly counterintuitive. Miller Brewing placed bottles of Miller Lite onscreen in the show's first season, even though the Tommy Gavin character was having drinking problems at the time, for instance. (Citing costs, the brewer decided not to renew the deal the following season). Now that he's on the wagon, alcoholic beverages would seem like a no-no. Given the characters' penchant for outlandish behavior, advertisers would be well-advised to follow Miller, which was able to negotiate how and where its brew made appearances.
Your Ad Here? Makers of movies, cars and drinks seem to flock to "Rescue Me," which in 2006 counted Toyota, Boston Beer (Sam Adams), Diageo and Time Warner among its top advertisers. One concern has to be the softer ratings and the weaker, scattered storylines. If fans are moving away from Tommy Gavin and his rambunctious friends and family, it's cause to ponder whether this show is cooling down -- and whether FX can lend it some new energy, as it has "The Shield."
At the same time, FX seems to have structured ad breaks on the program to deliver as many viewers as possible. During most episodes, the first ad break doesn't come until 18 or so minutes into the program, meaning that the viewers who are hanging around are really wrapped up in the storyline, and perhaps not as interested in flipping somewhere else.
Media buyer's verdict:"Rescue Me" has its challenges this summer, said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at independent Horizon Media. This summer has been extremely competitive on cable, with many of the networks launching critically acclaimed programs, including "Saving Grace" on TNT, "Army Wives" on Lifetime and "Damages" on, yes, FX. Mr. Adgate suggests FX may have spent more time and effort on promoting "Damages," which features Glenn Close as a high-priced attorney, because it is just launching, whereas "Rescue Me" has already built up a fan base. Nonetheless, says the media-buying executive, "the storyline is not as compelling," perhaps because of the 9/11 element that was so prevalent in the first season.