Here are a couple of things Peter Tolan, the co-creator of FX’s “Rescue Me,” learned the hard way last week:
1. If you have your lead character beat and rape his estranged wife, don’t expect viewers everywhere to welcome the scene as the culmination of a complicated dramatic arc.
2. Trying to explain yourself on an Internet message board can be like attempting to lecture on Shakespeare in the middle of a rugby scrum.
Taking risks comes naturally to the creators of “Rescue Me”; the series, after all, is a delicately balanced comedy-drama that explores the screwed-up lives of a group of fictional New York firefighters, the same fraternity who were dubbed “America’s Heroes” after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But last week’s episode, co-written by Tolan and star Denis Leary, went way too far for many fans and critics.
In the closing scene, after Tommy Gavin (Leary) and soon-to-be-ex-wife Janet (Andrea Roth) argued over custody of a chaise longue, he knocked her onto a sofa, ripped off her clothes and forced himself on her sexually. Then he apologized -- not for the rape, but for tearing her shirt. (“It wasn’t one of my favorites,” Janet replied dazedly, a line that, in suggesting her lack of anger over the violation, did as much to incense some viewers as the act itself.)
Accept Tommy as a boozy, faithless, neurotic lout? Sure. He redeems himself by risking his hide to save people trapped in burning buildings.
But accept him as a rapist? No way, said many viewers. Not goin’ there.
The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan blogged that the rape scene “hit a sickening new low.” Newark Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall attacked “Rescue Me” for “a pattern of misogyny and pathetic characterizations of women” and said the scene “made me uncomfortable and unhappy in a way even the most extreme TV and film almost never does.” Fans began heatedly deconstructing the scene on Web forums.
Enter Tolan, a veteran screenwriter (“Analyze This”) who says he innocently believed he could expand the discussion by posting his thoughts on a popular website, Television Without Pity.
Perhaps it was the site’s name that gave him pause. Before posting his first comment, “I sat there and thought, ‘Should I do this? My gut is saying no,’ ” he said in a phone interview Friday. “I thought maybe I could explain some things.
“But all you do,” he has since concluded, “is paint a target on your back.”
Two media trends are fueling the fire over “Rescue Me.” One has to do with the evolution of the series drama, the other with the growing role of the Internet in shaping and amplifying debate over TV programming.
Since HBO’s “The Sopranos” premiered in 1999, over-the-top antiheroes have become a staple of “edgy” TV fare. Vic Mackey, the leader of the anti-gang unit on FX’s “The Shield,” killed one of his team members and routinely tortures suspects. On Fox’s “24,” heroin addiction was a bugbear for counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer.
Leary’s Tommy Gavin fits into this antihero trend. Women and vodka bring him misery, but he can’t leave either alone. Some fans, though, clearly don’t want to contemplate Tommy as something darker than an essentially good-natured screw-up. Tolan agreed that that squeamishness may have much to do with Tommy’s chosen profession.
“You’re certainly not used to seeing an antihero who has been traditionally portrayed in media as a hero,” Tolan said. “Especially in the days after 9/11, ‘America’s Heroes’ and all that. We’ve always been turning that image on its head.”
The Internet, meanwhile, continues to grow as an outlet for impassioned TV fans -- and series creators like Tolan are, one way or another, learning to adjust. As the message boards burned with debate over “Rescue Me” last week, Gemstar-TV Guide announced that it would buy the popular TV site Jump the Shark, which the company hopes will give it improved access to die-hard viewers. In the forums at Television Without Pity -- TWOP, to initiates -- users analyze plot points and story arcs with a zealotry that would not be out of place in a debate over Mideast politics or abortion law.
TWOP started in 2001, but Tolan learned of it only last month, from an article in Entertainment Weekly. Surprised by the strong reaction viewers had to the rape scene, he thought he would use the TWOP arena to remind them of its context within the series.
He wrote: “I’ll admit this is extremely dicey stuff. The idea of any woman ‘enjoying’ being raped is repellent, and caused all of us (and the network) a great deal of concern. But again, these are seriously damaged people who are unable to express their emotions -- and so expression through brutality has become expected.”
Many TWOP denizens were pleased that the executive producer of a series had bothered to join a discussion. But others were hardly star-struck, including one who suggested that Tolan was merely making fancy excuses for a poorly written script.
Tolan followed up with a protest that some of the discussion was “combative.”
“The scene was not written to be provocative,” he told me Friday. Asked if he believed what Tommy did to Janet constituted rape, he paused and replied: “Yeah, I guess I’d have to say that. That’s the technical [term]. But we never called it that, because we were trying to hook more into the relationship.”
Will the rumpus from fans affect the rest of this season’s stories? Probably not. Tuesday’s episode was the fourth of 13 episodes. Nos. 9 and 10 are being shot now; Tolan is currently rewriting the 11th. But Tolan made a point of noting that Tommy will get his “karmic payback” for the rape in a future episode: “There is a consequence, and it’s an unexpected one.”
Meanwhile, Tolan has gotten a bit of karmic payback himself. He clearly feels a little burned by his online adventure. But his experience may prove useful for future producers who find themselves squaring off against an empowered fan base. He also can’t say he wasn’t warned.
“I’ve actually talked to some friends, some of whom are actors who are very well known and other writers, and I’ve said, ‘How do you find it to be dealing with your fans of your shows?’ To a person, they said, ‘You know, it’s probably not a good idea to get involved.’ ”
So does that mean farewell to the message boards?
“I think I’ll go back to say I won’t be back,” he said.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins’ television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.