'Rescue Me' Rescued

Last week I mentioned I watched the first nine episodes of this season's "Rescue Me" (FX, 10 p.m.), which returns tonight after a year-long layoff.

I have to admit, I was worried that "Rescue Me" had jumped the so-called shark after last season's uneven offerings. What had been one of TV's most innovative shows was in danger of coming completely off the tracks.

I am overjoyed to report that, at least through nine of 22 episodes, "Rescue Me" is back with a vengeance. Few shows balance both drama and humor as well as this show when it's on its game, which it is in abundance.

When we last left firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary), he was still struggling to control his alcoholism, messing things up with his wife Janet (the superb Andrea Roth), and dealing with the death of his father.

This season picks up where the last one ended off, with Tommy facing a Section 8 dismissal for impersonating his late cousin Jimmy while fighting fires. He is still having an affair with his girlfriend (Gina Gershon), still dealing with his ex-girlfriend, Jimmy's wife Sheila (Callie Thorne) and trying to keep his wild daughter in check.

Meanwhile, the crew of Tommy's engine are dealing with their own stuff. Mike (Mike Lombardi) just saw his mom pass away. Kenny (John Scurti) is still looking for love. Franco (Daniel Sunjata) is not making any friends by trying to tell the world 9/11 was an inside job (echoing Sunjata's real-life views). "Black" Sean (Larenz Tate) is seeing Tommy's daughter (Natalie Distler) in secret.

Amid all this, Janet has a new boyfriend, a pill-popping parapalegic played by Michael J. Fox, like you've never seen him. And a beautiful French journalist (Karina Lombard) enters the house trying to write a book about 9/11. One piece of documentary footage she shows the crew will change the lives of several characters.

The humor, as usual, is top-notch, led by Leary's portrayal of Tommy. It's hard to pick a great funny moment among so many, but pay attention to Tommy and Janet's trip to his younger daughter's boarding school; the color scheme for Mike's bar; and Tommy's rather unique plan to break up his daughter with "Black" Sean. (He manages to top the time when he encouraged Colleen to become a lesbian).

Amid the humor is some of the best-written drama on TV, dealing with topics like 9/11 (explored this season better than any other), to alcoholism and drug abuse, to one character learning he or she has cancer, to survivor's guilt. Thorne turns in a performance so stunning at the end of Episode 5 that she ought to be a virtual shoo-in for an Emmy nomination in her portrayal of a 9/11 widow.

Sunjata's off-the-wall real life views become a topic for the show as the firefighters he serves with take great offense with his perspective. Does expressing an opinion make one unpatriotic? Should one always express an opinion when it offends someone else? "Rescue Me" isn't afraid to explore the questions, but offers no easy answers.

It's easy to see the extra time Leary and partner Peter Tolan took in writing this season pays off in a big way. So tune in and enjoy one of TV's best shows.

TUESDAY'S BEST BETS: "Fringe" (Fox, 9 p.m.) is back tonight after several weeks of hiatus, following a new "American Idol." After a slow start, "Fringe" had settled into a nice groove when it left, so here is hoping that it sustains it.

"Dancing With The Stars" (ABC, 9 p.m.) has its results show, followed by a new "Cupid" at 10 p.m.

CBS has an all-new night, leading off with an Abby-centric "NCIS" at 8 p.m. (love the Abby-centric ones) and followed by "The Mentalist" and "Without A Trace."

NBC has a new "Biggest Loser." (NBC, 8 p.m.), while the CW has new installments of "Reaper" at 8 p.m. and "90210" at 9 p.m.

Finally, it's a new "My Boys" on TBS at 10:30 p.m.