While the sixth season of "Rescue Me" premieres tonight on FX, production on the seventh and final season had just wrapped when our Jim Halterman recently spoke with Executive Producer and co-creator Peter Tolan earlier this month. With the series finale set to air in 2011 to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, "Rescue Me" is one show that has continually paid tribute to the very real tragedy that happened that day and how it has impacted the lives of New York firefighters and their families. For now, though, what is coming up in the new episodes of season six? Will Tommy (co-creator/executive producer Denis Leary) survive the shooting from last season's cliffhanger? Assuming he does, will he finally give up the drink? Will he ever choose between ex-wife Janet (Andrea Roth) and nutty Sheila (Callie Thorne)? Tolan gave up the scoop on these questions and more as well as why his post-"Rescue Me" plans have nothing to do with smoke.
Jim Halterman: How does that feel to have wrapped up the series?
Peter Tolan: I think it was the time to do it. The last day we had a lot of the cast members there and some of the kids... when we started working they were young girls and they've grown up with us! There were a lot of changes over the years and a lot of interesting things have happened.
JH: Did you and Denis always have an idea what the last episode would be for the show?
PT: Yeah, to be honest, we had several bad visions early on. At one point, Denis said, "I think Tommy goes into a fire and the room is completely ablaze and he just sits in the middle of the room in a chair and that's it." I said, "Wow!" He said Tommy hasn't been able to support his family as well and the best way for them to benefit from him is to have him die in a fire. Ultimately, the show is about surviving a massive event like 9/11 and coming out the other side with some kind of appreciation for living. So I said, "I don't think having Tommy die in a fire is the way to do that." We did a couple more bad ones - both of us - like Tommy swimming out to sea. Then, finally, at the end of last season we came up with something and stuck with it and the choice we made, I think, is pretty effective.
JH: In many ways, Tommy has always seemed to have a death wish so as a longtime viewer even I've been conflicted as to whether I think Tommy should live or die in the end.
PT: There is a lot of conflict in terms of what the last message should be but I think we're happy with how it came out. It's obviously not any of those things I just said.
JH: The show has always been anchored in the events of 9/11 so it's safe to say that you and Denis taken the phrase "Don't Ever Forget" to heart, right?
PT: Oh yeah. I think that was always a concern. I think with something like 9/11 there's always a response to it but sometimes it's like we've dealt with it and now it's behind us and it's no big deal. There's something American about putting things behind us but I don't think it is something we can put behind us. To do that trivializes it and I think it dishonors the memory of the people who were killed that day. It is certainly a touchstone that we've never forgotten.
JH: What is the theme of the episodes that we're seeing in this new season?
PT: At the end of the fifth season Tommy was shot and was left for dead but it's quite obvious that we're not going to kill Tommy but we are going to take him to the brink of death. He's really been given a second chance but it's like 'what am I going to do with this?' There's a lot of soul searching and a lot of looking back on faith and religious upbringing. I think at a certain point the audience wants to see forward movement in characters. Tommy can't always be floating around in a cesspool of anger and boozing and whatever else.
We really feel we had to get him out of that and I think we really, really, really had to have him hit bottom so we figured out a way to do that which involves another character and it's a real interesting episode right in the middle of the season (episode 605). It's a very unusual episode and it was a little more complicated so Denis and I had to spend a lot of time talking and making each other understand what the episode was. But Tommy does eventually hit bottom in an interesting way, an indirect way and it affects someone else and because of that he makes a big choice in his life and begins a slow redemption of where he belongs.
JH: Tommy has always gone from Janet to Sheila and back to Janet and back to Sheila and so on. Will we finally see some resolution to that triangle?
PT: I think you're definitely going to see a resolution. At the point of hitting bottom and when he makes a choice about how he's going to live it also impacts his family. It's not clean and there are a few little slip-ups along the way but he does make a choice to recommit to his family.
JH: "Rescue Me" always uses guest stars so well. Anyone coming up in Season 6?
PT: Peter Gallagher comes in playing a Catholic priest. Maura Tierney is coming back but I think that's in seventh season. I think Peter is the only guest person that we've got.
JH: So, I'm guessing if Peter Gallagher is coming in as a priest, religion will still be a hot topic for the show?
PT: Yes! We just shot the last scene of the show in a church so how fitting is that?
JH: In the second episode of this new season, we see Tommy getting drunk on the altar of the church. Even to non-religious people like myself, that comes off as pretty sacrilegious. Can you talk about the decision to push the envelope?
PT: There's a reason that people blame their parents for a lot of their problems and rightly so. Personality and character is defined by those first three to four years of life and what you're exposed to. Like with church, even if you turn your back on it, which I have and a lot of people have, especially the Catholic church, it doesn't matter because it's still in you. That's the reason why there's been a constant thing in the series, which is a question about God's plan. Tommy's always asking about God's plan. Tommy is always angrily saying 'I keep hearing about God's plan but where is the plan? What is it?'
So there's a yearning and even though you've turned your back on your religion it is engrained in you and you want to believe and you're constantly questioning it. You say, "Prove it to me because I want to believe it!" I think that's true with a lot of people and it certainly is for that character or else he'd never go to a church again but he always ends up in a church and confronting priests and saying, "What's it all about? What's the deal?" It's the same for everybody. It's the same for me. I have the same reaction. We're shooting in those churches and sometimes we look at each other and go, "We're going to hell." If you make that statement then, even joking on some level, you've bought into a whole value set.
JH: And now that you're moving beyond "Rescue Me," what is your plan?
PT: I have no doubt that Mr. Leary and I will be back in action at some point but at this time I've started a television production company with my former agent. We hit the ground running and have sold a bunch of different pilot scripts and we're going to go out again soon to sell a bunch more. I'm still going to do stuff like "Rescue Me" but a lot of it is more life affirming. I think I'm going to take a break from the dark for a while. I just want to do something that says, "Hey, you know what? Life's good and let's enjoy it and let's laugh." And I'm not going to do a goddamn show with smoke in it! I mean, the number of times I sat in a smoke-filled set with a respirator going "My next show is going to be a Park Avenue family who are agoraphobics. They live in a very nice apartment and they never go outside!"
The sixth season of "Rescue Me" kicks off tonight at 10:00/9:00c on FX.