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Rescue Me: Fourth season premiere (FX)

Mr. Softie: Firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) cradles his estranged wife's newborn son while wondering whether he might be impotent during the fourth season return of FX's Rescue Me.

FX's ongoing parade of deeply flawed men isn't about to miss a beat.

Last week's sixth season finale of The Shield bleeds into Wednesday's fourth season launch of Rescue Me (June 13th, 9 p.m. central). After that comes Nip/Tuck, whose Season 5 is set to launch in early fall. Men. Can't live with 'em, can't live with 'em.

Rescue Me's smoldering torch, New York firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary), was dragged from a burning beach house at the end of last season. He's still not entirely sure what happened, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Sheila Keefe (Callie Thorne), isn't about to fully admit her complicity.

A big insurance settlement awaits if Tommy can convince investigators that he didn't start the fire in another of his alcoholic fits. "We know you're a drunk with a very convenient drinking problem," he's told.

Leary clearly hasn't grown weary of Tommy. Wednesday's early minutes are consumed by his energized spurts of dialogue after 18-year-old daughter Colleen (Natalie Distler) comes home drunk and high after having sex with a 26-year-old rock singer.

"I can't believe that I'm finally the moral compass here," he tells his estranged wife, Janet (Andrea Roth), with whom he's been living platonically after she birthed a boy that's either his or his recently deceased brother's. Life is never free and easy for Tommy, who also worries about being impotent after Sheila cannily lays that groundwork.

Clean and sober for now, Tommy is more comic than tragic in the first three episodes of the new season. Whatever his circumstances, Leary has the character down. So much so that the show tends to sag a bit when other cast members take the leash for too long.

Chief Jerry Reilly (Jack McGee), trying to reassume command after recovering from a stroke, is the most compelling of the firehouse gang. But new cast member Jennifer Esposito makes an immediate strong impression as a sexy, sturdy volunteer firefighter named Nona. She carried Tommy from the blazing beach house and now wants to carry their relationship further. But recent fears and anxieties shrink him to a near nebbish in her presence.

Rescue Me also dares to include a Tourette's Syndrome character who involuntarily spouts the n-word. And Tatum O'Neal is back as Tommy's porn-dependent sister, Maggie, who recently married less than worldly firefighter Sean Garrity (Steven Pasquale).

The show as usual overreaches at times. One wonders how any fires get put out by a Ladder 62 crew with so much internal baggage. Lt. Kenny Shea (John Scurti) is another case in point. His marriage to a sex-starved former nun leaves him more spent than a little kid's allowance at Toys 'R Us.

For the most part it's still morbidly fascinating, with the last seconds of Episode 3 providing one of Rescue Me's biggest jolts to date. The series may not be on fire all the time, but it hasn't cooled its jets just yet.

Grade: B+