The dance around the delicate subject of interracial marriage played out in full last week when firefighter Bart "Black Shawn" Johnston (Larenz Tate) married into the rowdy Irish Gavin family on FX's Rescue Me. Of course the nuptials really were not surprising, given Shawn's tenacity and his just plain weird attraction to the alcoholic Colleen Gavin (Natalie Distler)...
Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a 2010 Pew Center survey viewed interracial marriage mostly with indifference, so the Rescue Me wedding wasn't exactly a five-alarmer. Data last year reported that one in seven new marriages in the U.S. were interracial or across ethnicity.
Rescue Me, which concludes Wednesday night at 10 ET with an expanded series finale, always has played with fire in the matter of race. The wedding episode, though, mostly emptied the screenwriters' notepad of racial cliches, epithets and boorish behavior, with characters trading jokes, barbs and insults at the expense of guests of other ethnicities. It's as though Tommy Gavin's (Denis Leary) act of loosening his belt after the wedding dinner stood as a metaphor for the screenwriter holding his good-taste/sensitivity gut in for lo these many seasons.
The show accelerated from occasional references to racial friction to a cascade of slurs and insults. But is that a bad thing?
It can be.
Think: Archie Bunker, Norman Lear's creation of an archetypical Queens, N.Y., hardworking family man for whom race clearly mattered. The wicked satire played out on All in the Family by Carroll O'Connor was the source of argument, heated controversy and seldom fully appreciated for its criticism of how race is lived in America.
That's because persons who are the butt of jokes seldom appreciate the joker slapping them on the back and guffawing. We have not yet arrived at the point where laughing "with" someone translates as clearly as laughing "at" someone.
Rescue Me pulled out all the stops, to borrow a metaphor taken from the artistry required to play a massive pipe organ. It was, in fact, a fugue.
How bigoted can we Americans be?
But what if it's not raw bigotry? What if it is, as fallen priest Mickey (Robert John Burke) in the Gavin family says, the spouting of a family of narrow-minded drunks? Is there a line that should not be crossed?
In the current raw political climate of states blue and red, satire is an impossible sell. For a fuller picture, though, go back to the firehouse. That's where the bond among the crew is sealed.
They have to rely on one another when a squad charges into a burning building. That could be why, in some small measure, it's historically been difficult for minorities and women to gain acceptance into this fraternity. They trust one another, but hold outsiders at bay.
That's one possible reason -- but no excuse. And until they prove otherwise, minorities and women are viewed on Rescue Me as outsiders. Shawn probably gained some fraction of respect from the combative Tommy Gavin when he stood his ground on marrying Colleen.
Not that a happy ending loomed; in fact, the previews suggested quite the opposite. But maybe Tommy, someday, will cut the kid some slack.
The Gavins will, after all, hold Shawn and Colleen's kids some day and call them family.
And though the final episode did remind viewers just how coarse these guys could be, Rescue Me rightly summoned some somber moments, yet managed to bring the curtain down with some gut-busting comedic scenes.
Spoiler Alert for those who recorded the show to watch later: The crew's trip to spread the ashes of one fallen comrade was worthy of comparison to the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges.
And how can anyone cry at a memorial where bagpipers skirl "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"?
What better way to release a spirit than on the wings of an Iron Butterfly?
Way to go, guys.
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