Monday, June 26, 2006

Rape or not rape?

Tolan! Leary! Leary and Tolan! Tolan and Leary! The morning after last week's "Rescue Me" -- specifically, after The Incident between Tommy and Janet at the end of the episode -- I called my friendly neighborhood FX publicist and asked to speak to Peter and Denis about their interpretation of the scene and some of the angry reactions to it.

As I said in a post on Friday, I don't agree with a lot of what the guys had to say, but I respect their willingness to talk about it in a fairly calm exchange. just posted the column I wrote about the interview, but if you have lots and lots and lots of time to kill -- especially on the passage where Denis gives his views on women in the FDNY -- I've put a full transcript of the interview after the jump. I didn't really bother to clean up the grammar on either end, so apologies if my questions are so evasively-phrased that I occasionally sound like a "Deadwood" character.

QUESTION: Peter, from seeing what you wrote on TV Without Pity, you're clearly aware of some of the negative reaction to what happened in the scene at the end of Tuesday's episode. First of all, can you describe what your intention was, what you were trying to convey with that scene?

PETER TOLAN: Well, we're talking about characters we've established who have great difficulty in terms of expressing themselves emotionally, and so at that point, it doesn't seem an option anymore for these people, especially as their actions become more unacceptable to each other, Janet sleeping with Tommy's brother, so forth and all that. We can only expect that the non-emotional reaction, that is, physical or vocal, are going to become more and more dangerous, or more and more intense. So in that way, it seemed right. I mean, we've never said that this is a functional relationship, it's highly dysfunctional. And so it seemed -- we definitely knew that this was a dangerous scene, and in some ways we tried to be very careful about it, but at the same time, those are the characters, this is the show, it's informed by everything that's come before it and it will inform everything that comes after it. If this was the season finale or the finale for the series, I wouldn't blame viewers for burning down FX. And by the way, I'll give the address to anyone who wants it.

DENIS LEARY: The other thing you have to remember with these two people, is the choice she made after Tommy -- discussing this thing amongst ourselves, in organically continuing the characters paths, before the season began and before we started writing it -- Tommy actually says it, I think, in the first episode, you know, 'There's blood on both our hands.' Because she got back into the relationship last year, with that great reading of that line 'Til Death do us part.'. She did it because of financial reasons and to put the family back together for the kids. And Tommy said, basically, if we hadn't gotten together again, Connor would still be alive because he wouldn't have been on that street at that time. It's backtracking, they're both trying to backtrack to explain why they lost that child. Anyways, she made a choice from there that is very difficult for Tommy to swallow. At the same time these two have had an animal attraction to each other going back to when they first met. That, in essence is what that scene [inaudible] of -- everything that antagonizes the both of them towards each other, and then this insane physical passion that they have never been without, really, in their relationship, you know?

Q: So even though he's clearly manhandling her and in charge at the beginning of that scene, you guys would not in any way consider what took place there to be rape?

DL: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, in shooting that scene and in writing it, but especially in shooting it, you go back and you watch the scene and watch it from the beginning of that scene until the end, it's actually one of the -- Andrea Roth was fantastic in that scene, because she goes from fear and anger and punching him in the face and fighting him back, and back to the place where they began their relationship, where the spark occurred. Even her reaction afterwards is that horrible magnetic pull that these two people have for each other, which is ultimately going to be their destruction, because they can't get away from each other and they have to. One of the things I've always said about shooting this scene and knowing that people were going to be hanging on a Tuesday night waiting till the next week is, you know, 'If you want to see what that scene is about, keep on watching, and watch what happens with that relationship over the course of the season,' because, you know, it's about the intensity between them and the attraction -- they'll never get over that attraction, so they have to get away from it, they have to be separated, because it's always going to be there.

Q: Now, I have actually seen next week's episode, because (FX publicity) sent out 4 and 5 together, and there's very little follow-up to that in the next episode, other than Tommy, I guess, being concerned that he might have given her chlamydia. You had to know -- as you said, you had to be careful in the writing and the shooting of the scene -- you had to know that some people were going to take it that way. Was there any thought to doing something in the following episode to clarify exactly what this was?

DL: No. We clarify it over the course [of the season]. It's in six, it's dealt with seven and again in eight. It affects her long-term, and, without giving away how it goes down, comes down right into the last three episodes of the season.

Q: But you're obviously not surprised that some people did take it that way.

DL: No. Whenever you do something, you know, it's not the movie world where you can wrap everything up in the course of 90 minutes or two hours, so these relationships are very detailed and long-term. We knew that some people were going to react the wrong way, in our opinion, but either way that people reacted, that they would get their answers as they continued to watch, because that relationship in particular -- all of them obviously, because you hope you're creating interesting relationships across the board -- but that relationship is so complicated, and complicated even further now by what occurred. And it obviously has an affect on both of them, and on Tommy's brother Johnny, as well.

Q: Other than, I guess, show 3, which ends with us finding out that Probie is having this relationship with his roommate, every episode this season so far has closed with Tommy sort of walking off triumphantly into the sunet or into his car or whatever, and there was definitely, as he leaves Janet's apartment, that look of "I've just accomplished something and I'm driving off because I came, I saw, I conquered." Was that what you were going for with that?

DL: The look on his face afterwards was more about his brother and reclaiming his wife without his brother knowing it. That's what that's about.

PT: There's a lot of conjecture as to what that look means and what the whole act is actually about. And this is what I think it's about, and this shows you how deeply distubed these characters are. Yeah, you could say, yes he has forced himself on Janet to get back at Johnny or to get back at her for her being with him and all that, but I think the truth of it is, in spite of all this stuff that's gone on, he still loves her. In an entirely misguided, crazy way, he's trying to recapture something with her from a million years ago that he'll never be able to recapture and so much water has gone under the bridge, the relationship is irreparably damaged, and they're just going to spin in this vortex for a while until one of them breaks away for good.

DL: I don't think there's any question in Tommy's mind, that's the way, certainly when I'm writing or working the scenes with her, that's the woman he wants. It's obviously a very screwed-up and complicated relationship, but if she said, 'Yeah, I'm coming back tomorrow,' he would take her right in.

PT: A lot of people see that scene, Alan, and say, 'I got her back' [meaning revenge], but I see it as 'I got her back! My wife's back!'

DL: Hopefully it's a long-term effect that, because of that passion, she may come to her senses and say, 'I want to be with you.' That's Tommy's dream come true. With all the water under the bridge fllowing, let's get back together. That's the woman he wants to see when he walks in the door at night.

PT: I think it's a little simplistic for people to look at that and say 'Well, he just did that to get back at Johnny.' He already got back at Johnny, he already beat the shit out of him in the street, I don't think he needs to go this far. I can see how people would make that interpretation, but that's not in our minds what it is.

Q: Now, earlier in the episode there's the Crazy Chick-Calling Day sequence where Tommy's fielding these phone calls from all the women in his life and who are all nagging him, and one of the complaints I've heard about the show and, frankly, that I sometimes have, even though I love it overall, is that, while the men are allowed to be screwed-up and have problems and be reprehensible at times, they're also shown to have admirable qualities. Tommy's good at his job, he cares about Lou, he cares about the other guys, etc. Whereas the women, for the most part, we're only getting the male point of view of them, which is negative. They mainly seem to be there to mess with the guys. What would you say to that?

PT: Denis has always said that, when that complaint comes up, that somehow it's about men who hate women or have some issue with women. The reality is these are men whose actions are determined by the fact that they need these women, and either they love them or need them in some way. Ultimately it's the women in these things who have the power over them. Either they can't express themselves or they're incapable of that, but it's the women who are more powerful. In terms of what those women do, we're obviously only showing parts of their lives, because our main story is the guys. We're not showing the full story. Is Sheila -- yeah, some people say 'Sheila's crazy, 'Sheila's a whiner' -- but is she also a good mother? Because we've only seen her in certain situations where she's done everything she can to protect her son. 'You're not going to be a firefighter.' 'You're not going to be selling drugs.' 'I'm worried about this, I'm worried about that.' We see Sheila, that as a positive. Having said that, when people say 'Why can't there be a good relationship on Rescue Me, why can't we have a positive happy couple?,' I say, 'You know what? I'd love to show that. Do I want to write it? No.'

DL: Do you want to play it, as an actor?

PT: It would bore the shit out of me.

DL: It's not a great story to tell. But at a certain point, this is one of the things we've talked about for next year is how much fun, having had these screwed-up relationships, to have everybody settle back and all of a sudden everybody has paired off and is happy. And then, because it's the nature of life and the stories we're telling, that can only last for so long.

PT: At this point, we've established a format where, every now and then, we offer the prospect of happiness to a couple, or to a man and a woman, and at the last minute, of course, our better instinct comes through and we dash whatever hopes they had.

Q: Well, I'm not even necessarily talking about whether people can have functioning relationships. I think back, you know, to the Diane Farr character, for instance, who when she was introduced, it seemed she was there in part to fill the same role she did on 'The Job,' which was to keep some of the guys' macho bullshit in check and show this is not necessarily the way you have to look at the world, and by the time she left, she had been reduced to this whiney, incompetent character.

DL: In the house that we're working out of, and within the reality of the show, which is based in the reality of firefighting in a big city, that is exactly how that relationship would occur. We've discussed it in the show, and I forget the monologue where we deal with it, but women have, for the most part, including Diane's character, been legislated into this job, because they don't have to take the same physical test that the men have to take, and the Mayor's office and other political aspects have come into it, and they demand a gender balance. And now they're demanding an ethnic balance. They're willing to forgive failure in the physical test because they want more black firefighters, more Chinese firefighters, they want an ethical, politically correct balance. The truth of the matter is that on the job guys are extremely resentful that they had to go through a physical exam that involved so many difficult things, including running up seven flights of stairs with 100 pounds of equipment strapped to you and picking up a 150-pound dummy and carrying it, running down seven flights of stairs with it. If you can't do that, you can't do the job, so when these women and other people are legislated into the job, it pisses these guys off to no end, because it puts their lives at risk, as well as the people they're saving. And that's an issue that will never go away, it's only going to get worse, actually, as the FDNY starts to deal with federal government investigations, 'Why aren't they more ethnically-balanced in the New York fire department?' The truth is, it's a job that you have to want to do and be able to do. I don't know about you, but if my kids are stuck in a burning building, I don't want the person who's legislated in, I want the guy who wants to go in and get them going after them. It's life or death, and that's what her storyline was about. We wouldn't introduce another female firefighter tomorrow unless we were going to make her -- and, by the way, I've met female firefighters from other parts of the country who are supremely physically able to do the job, that we would deal with -- that would be an interesting female character to have. That's why that issue was dealt with the way that it was. She shouldn't have been there. She wasn't capable of doing it.

Q: I guess what I'm asking is, is there a way -- going back to what I said before, it's not like Tommy for the most part is a positive character, but he does have admirable qualities. Is there a way of changing what the show is to maybe alter the balance a little bit in terms of showing occasional good sides to the female characters?

PT: Alan, we have actually talked about this, and at a certain point, yeah, you want to try and balance things out. We've talked about next season, that Probie's going to be a full firefighter soon, and we're going to need to bring in another probie. Who is that? Why couldn't it be a woman? And why couldn't it be a capable woman? And why couldn't it be a lesbian or somebody who's extremely capable in the job and the guys have to deal with that. They'll do the same thing, they'll say she shouldn't be there, but she'll prove herself and they'll have to accept her. And then you'll be getting that woman's viewpoint from a woman they are forced to respect for her abilities. And then you can open the character up and open them up to in terms of having a woman they can talk to about women and get sort of an informed attitude. I think that's an interesting choice we could make.

DL: You start talking about conceivably, possibly, a gay firefighter. Well, I know a chief here in Manhattan who's not only out of the clsoet but was a fantastic firefighter and became a lieutenant and became a chief. And the guys had no problem with him whatsoever, because he was physically able to do the job. And that's what it all came down to. As much as they were probably upset about it at first, once they saw the guy in action, they were like, 'Fuck this. He's good.' That what it's all about.

Q: That brings me to the current Probie storyline. Peter, you were saying in the TV Without Pity message board that it had started out as something else and had morphed. Could you elaborate on what it originally was going to be and why it evolved into this?

PT: I had originally pitched that storyline, and in talking about it with Dennis, we constructed a different story for that, that was certainly dramatic, it certainly had highly dramatic elements to it. Part of that was the Probie actually was -- we'd set up a guy who was searching for love, was restless and lonely and all those things, he'd had the relationship with the overweight woman last season -- and he was just searching. So it made sense that this was the next step that it would be. But it was for the most part a dramatic storyline. In the course of talking about it, we realized maybe we were repeating some things, some storylines we'd done in earlier seasons. That was the main concern, so we started to back off that storyline, but we'd already put it into motion. So at this point we're playing it much more for humor than we did in the original pitch. Whether it's successful is another story, I don't know. A lot of people, from what I'm hearing, either think it's very funny and right on target for the character or really confused by it and not sure why we did it, and whatever. But that happens a lot on our show. We'll start out saying, 'Hey, we're going to do this,' and then either some flaw will come up and we'll move on to something else, or something else stronger will come along and we'll go with that.

Q: Before we finish up, let's go back to the original scene with Tommy and Janet. Dennis, you talked about how it's not a feature, you can't wrap it up at the end of two hours, it's something you're going to deal with going forward. But I've certainly heard and read a lot of people saying that they're done with the show after having witnessed that. What would you tell them to make them maybe want to continue to see where this goes?

DL: It's hard to tell somebody who's giving up on a show... Me, my favorite show on television over the course of the last five or six years has been 'The Sopranos,' and it's always interesting to me that people can see Tony Sopranos kill somebody and chop up a body and get rid of it and not have an issue with it, but in this instance have a problem with Tommy Gavin and his wife in that scene. Maybe you're watching this show for the wrong reasons, and maybe you shouldn't be watching it, you know what I mean? The only time I have a problem with The Sopranos is when I think, 'Oh my god, this is a ridiculous storyline.' or 'Why are we watching this character when we could be watching the main characters?' So I have no answer for them, you know?

Q: Peter, do you have one?

PT: First of all, I think that the number of people who are saying they're done with the show is probably a small number. I would certainly hope so. But the truth of it is, we must believe, and we would not write a scene to be provacative. That was never our intention, this is a storyline that is thought out and is supported by the previous actions of the characters in this relationship and will be answered in karmic ways in later episodes. We're not there to be provacateurs, but I would say to them somewhat the same what Denis said: 'Don't watch the show.' But I have a feeling that a great many of the people who said, 'I'm not going to watch' won't be able not to. Because if they care that passionately to make that statement, there's something that attracts them to the show.

DL: There's actually a woman who called my production office at Apostle and spoke to one of the guys who works for me. And she went into a diatribe about how much she loved the show and was so upset about what happened (last night) and eventually he cut her off and said, 'Why are you calling me?' And she said, 'I just want to file a complaint.' He said, 'Are you saying you're not going to watch the show anymore?' And she said, 'Well, I didn't say that.' That's just kind of interesting to me.

PT: A lot of people, yes, they hated that. They thought it was over the edge, too far. But just like you, Alan, just like what you wrote in your blog, there are other parts of the show that still have their attention that still have their heart, and they're not ready to give up on that. Look, the fact is, people are passionate about it, people are talking about it. In this business, that's always better than people who just don't give a shit.

DL: That's true. If they didn't give a shit...

PT: ... then we've failed all the way around.


lady t said...

Great interview,Alan-thanks! I haven't seen this much ruckus about a rough sex scene since the season six AR on Buffy. I think that both Leary and Tolan are striving for a realistic tone with the plots and characters and I'm more than willing to stick around for the rest of the season to see how everything turns out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview, Alan. I'm still in the "it was hate sex" camp, and I'm going to continue watching to see what the "karmic payback" is for Tommy (maybe Janet gets pregnant and it turns out to be Johnny's?).

Jason said...

I keep trying to read these guys' explanations and get where they're coming from, but it all ends up going in circles. Fundamentally, I think the lack of understanding in their responses proves the point that they really don't get what they've done wrong. Or they don't care. (I'd guess the former, but who knows?)

Anonymous said...

Yeah I love it when they use The Sopranos as a comparison but don't GET the essential differences. And I don't mean firefighters vs mobsters, differences either.

Anonymous said...

Cool. Where else but the Internet can you get a writer trying to rationalize a rape scene, not doing a very good job of it, and giving up on trying to explain it all away.

I am not sure I can quote Scott Collins of the LA Times in his article "`Rescue Me' writer fans the inflamed", but his #1 sentence says it all.

Anonymous said...

I wish Mr. Sepinwall had done a better job explaining to the creators of Rescue Me that it wasn't the events of the episode, so much as the show's attitude toward those events, that made the rape scene so offensive. Everyone seems to want to bring up the Sopranos, and they should. David Chase's vision of the life of the American male provides the thoughtful, complex alternative to these numbskulled peddlers of their own unexamined, banal, macho fantasies.

Yes, Tony Soprano does worse things than Tommy Gavin ever will. But here, in a nutshell, is the difference between the two shows; The Sopranos doesn't seemed as if it was written and directed by Tony Soprano. Rescue Me seems as if it was written and directed by Tommy Gavin.

Guess which one became a cultural phenomenon and is widely regarded as one of the best television shows ever produced and guess which one is an above average, often amusing hour of take-it-or-leave-it television, with most people choosing to do the latter?

Anonymous said...

[anonymous said...
I wish Mr. Sepinwall had done a better job explaining to the creators of Rescue Me that it wasn't the events of the episode, so much as the show's attitude toward those events,]

Check out the TWoP Rescue board. The issue was raised. I don't think Tolan took the point.

[Everyone seems to want to bring up the Sopranos, and they should. David Chase's vision . . . complex alternative to these numbskulled peddlers of their own unexamined, banal, macho fantasies.]

What are the odds that these "numbskulled peddlers" actually understand The Sopranos. I can't speak for Chase but I'd lay odds they represent the fans he'd like to shake.

These are the guys who had a female trauma therapist (S1) instantly cave, into a discussion about sexism after she got the cold shoulder treatment from the guys. That WASN'T her assignment! Most likely they think the only difference between them and Sopranos is the degree of nudity-violence-language- profession. Their ratings will stay in the low 2M and they'll think it's because they're TOO edgy for basic or because they can't compete with HBO's laxer standards.

[The Sopranos doesn't seemed as if it was written and directed by Tony Soprano. Rescue Me seems as if it was written and directed by Tommy Gavin.]


Alan Sepinwall said...

I make that point more thoroughly in the column than I did in talking to Tolan and Leary; there's only so far you want to push any interview. Two excerpts:

"Where we get to see the good and bad in all the men, the women are almost universally there to make life hell for the guys. Tommy Gavin no doubt believes that, but his show seems to believe it, too."

"(The difference, from my viewpoint, is that "The Sopranos" shows despicable acts without condoning them, a trick "Rescue Me" doesn't always pull off.)"

Anonymous said...

The difference with The Sopranos, as I saw it, was that we weren't treated to a hero in the very first episode, an episode which had Tommy visited by ghosts of countless victims of tragedy. He had angst, he had pathos, he had 'hello'. Tommy was a character I wanted to embrace after that first episode.

Tony Soprano was always, from the outset, a scary ruthless killer whom we GRADUALLY came to like, but whom we were ALWAYS reminded was a scary ruthless killer. Big difference.

Tommy Gavin, on the other hand, fed into our 9-11 feelings with the first episode of Rescue Me. The writers got us with that hook and we were interested in Tommy with the first show. Thereafter, however, he became less likable, the show became less artsy, and became more (yes, it did for me) misogynistic. The 'C' word used on Laura crossed the line a little, but I was willing to forgive, because I checked with a real firefighter friend and he said it was a valid portrayal.

And so the show went on. It became less artsy and more soap-opera-ish. Okay, I still watched, as I love Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke. And I loved finding John Scurti (who, by the way, was nearly forgotten in this rape episode).

Finally, the writers lost it. The rape episode went over the line. Period, the end. No amount of justification will make it go away. Can they move on from here? It remains to be seen. Will Tommy say to Janet: "I'm sorry I raped you"? I doubt it. Most likely, being of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, he will just ignore it. Or he, like Jessica Rabbit, will just be written that way.

Alan, Ellen Gray doesn't have a comments section, so please give her my thanks for a column well written.

And so it goes.

Anonymous said...

"Check out the TWoP Rescue board. The issue was raised. I don't think Tolan took the point."

Considering he was attacked and even reported in their rat fink thread for FAQ violations, I don't blame him for ignoring those morons.

Anonymous said...

[anonymous said...
The difference with The Sopranos, as I saw it, was that we weren't treated to a hero in the very first episode, . . . Tommy Gavin, on the other hand, fed into our 9-11 feelings with the first episode of Rescue Me.]

You know I actually thought Tommy's talk with the new guys about 9/11 was a bit contrived. But I agree tone of the show is all over the map. I think they hide behind the the impact of job pressures to explain away bad behavior rather than honestly exploring it. Same is true of the women, who, as Alan pointed out, have even less going for them than the men. But writers seem disinterested (or incapable) of doing anything more.

I knew coming in (based on The Job) this wasn't going to be a nice guy, and that it would be ramped up for cable, so mobster vs FF didn't by itself didn't jar me. All kinds of people can be major screw-ups.

As for the "C" word, I've always thought it was somewhat overrated as a trigger for female abhorrence. I've heard women use it -- at least in urban environments -- plenty of times.

Anonymous said...

As a woman that has watched every episode I honestly thought the moment between Tommy and Janet was physically very rough but either I'm naive or delusional but the behavior between the two of them was very typical of the relationship.

Every nuance between Tommy and Janet has shown us how explosive they can be - even physical. Now if she hadn't played the scene the way she did it wouldn't have fit their dance.

Rough or not it is them

As for women on the show - there good strong, honest women on the show.

Anonymous said...

You know, I just wanted to bring up the other side of the argument. Janet isn't a saint here either. She stole several hundred thousand dollars from Tommy and stole his kids. Tommy agrees to take her back, and the bitch leaves him and blames him for the death of thier son, which is probably the worse thing she did, as that would be when he needed her the most! And on top of this, she starts sleeping with his brother out in front of Tommy's two daughters.

I honestly don't think forcing sex on Janet was more being hateful towards or punishing Janet, but more of getting his brother back for the unpardonable sin of being in the process of stealing his wife. I think Dennis and Peter didn't comment on this as to not spoil the plot, but if Tommy gave Janet Clymidia, and Janet gives it to his brother, then it even deepens the story.

And further more, with these two looney toons, Janet might of wanted it anyway. The chemistry of their relationship is violent and explosive and crosses into the physical realm. My very conservative wife even agrees with me, too.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
You know, I just wanted to bring up the other side of the argument. Janet isn't a saint here either.

The difference between Tommy and Janet is Tommy is A LOT of bad with SOME good and a truer character. Janet is ALL bad with NO good, with as joke of a character.
That's NOT an even playing field.

She may well have done unscrupulous things (and let's not forget Tommy slept with his dead cousin's wife) BUT

A they did NOT involve physical force AND

B no one is denying that they are unscrupulous,albeit ridiculously contrived. Or denying that Tommy beat the shit out of his brother -- who's much more in his weight division that Janet -- and called it roughhousing.

But some WERE/ARE denying Janet was raped.

Anonymous said...
if Tommy gave Janet Clymidia, and Janet gives it to his brother, then it even deepens the story.

Deepen the story, or misdirect it, effectively substituting schtick for clarity? Which is a big part of the show's problem to begin with.

Diana Boston said...

I can't believe the backpedaling and the pussyfooting around that scene. That was a RAPE. Even if Janet was the worst person in the world, she did NOT deserve to be raped. She may have a bijillion character flaws like Tommy but it does NOT ever give him permission to rape her. Dysfunctional relationship? Yes. Do we have to show a rape scene to figure that out? No.

Spare me the excuses for the scene. Rape is Rape and that scene was a rape.

I will never watch it again. I am not watching Showcase either. I am so incredibly offended as a woman who has to deal with the threat of rape 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.

The more excuses I hear from people the more I realize how numb we've become to sexual violence.