When bad things happen to funny people
When bad things happen to good people, sappy but well-intentioned things occur. A new Chicken Soup for the Soul book appears. Greeting cards with a tasteful "I feel your sorrow" (for only $2) appear in card shops; poems, bumper stickers, and tear-jerky movies of the week erupt. But if we're very, very lucky, a solid TV series comes from all of this pain. This month not one, but two new series hit the small screen, both trading on personal and public crises, delivering rueful, cathartic laughs in the process.
The first of these is The Days on ABC. The series is narrated by Cooper Day (Evan Peters), a sullen 15-year-old aspiring writer and middle child living in a glossy Philadelphia suburb with his glowingly attractive family. He's overshadowed at home and at school by his beautiful older sister, Natalie (Laura Ramsey), and his brainiac little brother, Nathan (Zachary Maurer). But life as they know it changes with a kaboom in the very first episode: Natalie is pregnant, Nathan has a debilitating anxiety disorder, dad (David Newsom) impulsively quits his job, Cooper gets in a fight with his sister's baby's daddy, and to top it off, mom (Marguerite MacIntyre) is knocked up, too. Oh the humanity! Or, to our good fortune, as Cooper says after his parents nearly run each other off the road after a long day of confronting major life changing events, "Some day, all this is going to make me a lot of money."
Like Fox's The OC, The Days is wise to give as much attention to the parents' lives, as to the kids'. However, as bewildered parents Abby and Jack, MacIntyre and Newsom are tepid. They could use some of the wattage that Sela Ward and Billy Campbell brought to Once and Again. Like that short-lived series, the real characters of interest are the kids. Peters manages to make his moody teenage boy endearing, perhaps because we are privy to his true thoughts and feelings, which contradict his public above-it-all persona. Another pleasant touch is the prickly relationship between older siblings Cooper and Natalie two young people close enough in age to be confidants, but distanced through the high school caste systems that make siblings disown each other. Not since Freaks and Geeks' Lindsey and Sam has the sibling relationship been presented with such awkward and bittersweet honesty.
In spite of all the calamities that befall them, the Days are still a Teflon-coated TV family. Sure, mom and sis are pregnant and dad is having a midlife crisis, but after two episodes, their dramas seem like annoyances blowing in the wind. But there's time to develop this into a richer series, if ABC is patient enough to let it happen.
For a grittier, unvarnished look at family life, one should tune into the extraordinary FX drama Rescue Me. Denis Leary returns to the small screen in a familiar role as a flawed but well-meaning man who makes poor choices in his personal life, questionable choices in his professional life, smirks at the slightest sign of vulnerability, yet is emotionally tortured by things past. Leary reteams with co-creator Peter Tolan, who worked with Leary on the shamefully short-lived The Job (2001), in which Leary played a New York City cop. In Rescue Me, Leary plays New York firefighter Tommy Gavin, a man managing dual roles in his brotherhood of firefighters and as a man watching his marriage crumble before his eyes. Both family relationships hinge on the aftermath of 9/11 a defining moment for any New Yorker but of special import to rescue workers who lost loved ones and, in this case, Mike, a fellow firefighter and cousin to Leary's Tommy, who often appears as Tommy's confidant. Like The Days' Cooper, Tommy's ability to share his inner most feelings is choked by his determination to deny his vulnerabilities. That macho bull crap can mess a guy up, right?
While Tommy is only shades different from Leary's Mike McNeil in The Job, he's already shown a jaw-dropping range of emotion in the premiere episode of Rescue Me that he didn't in the handful of The Job episodes. This, I predict, will be the series that shows that not only can Leary play a bitter ass, but one with an emotional core that might rival James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano and Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey in the first season of The Shield.
The Days airs Sundays at 9pm on ABC. New episodes of Rescue Me air on Wednesdays at 9pm on FX, with encores throughout the week. Check local listings.