Both Rescue Me and Mad Men are television series about men. One of them is an irritatingly erratic show with moments of greatness that don't quite balance out the crap; the other is a new show that, seven episodes in, has already established itself as the best of the summer shows, at least the ones I've been watching.
I am far from the only person to note that Rescue Me is at its best when it is simply showing guys being guys together. The writing in those scenes is insightful and often hilarious. The show would make a great 30-minute no-laugh-track sitcom. But Rescue Me hasn't got the slightest idea what to do with its female characters. Well, that's not true … the women on the show are supposed to throw themselves all over Denis Leary. This is particularly noteworthy this season with the introduction of a character played by Gina Gershon who wants to do nothing other than fuck Leary. Yes, there's a "point" being made about the role reversal whereby the guy gets treated in fuck-em-and-shuck-em fashion by the gal. But in the context of the show, Gershon just joins a long line of other babes (and there's no denying Gershon's a babe) who find Denis Leary amazingly attractive. (And never forget the smirk on Leary's face after he finished raping his wife and she liked it … this season, they even addressed the outcry over that scene by having Leary use his hands to put scare quotes over the word "rape" when the incident was being discussed.)
The attitudes towards gender relations in Mad Men is seriously retro, in line with the series as a whole, which takes place in 1960. Men assume the world is their oyster (given the most recent episode, that phrase takes on new meaning), women acquiesce on the surface … it sure seems like a great time to be a Guy-with-a-capital-G. What separates Mad Men from Rescue Me is the attention that it pays to the women. We see the consequences of the social norms of the times on the women, and they aren't pretty. It might not seem like much, but Mad Men will often feature scenes that have nothing but women in them … I can barely think of such a scene in Rescue Me, because the women in that show are totally defined by their relationship to men, despite the fact that some of those women characters are purportedly strong 21st-century types in a world that understands feminism. Rescue Me is a desperate attempt by men to carve out the place for themselves that they think they lost back in the day. Mad Men takes place back in the day, we see that time for which the men of Rescue Me are so nostalgic … and it's not a good place for men or women to be. The women are stifled, but at least they're starting to figure out the problem … the men, at least the ones with vision, can see the world changing before their eyes, and they don't like the changes, but the more introspective amongst them can also see that the world of 1960 isn't all it's cracked up to be for men, either.
The world of Rescue Me is one where men strive for the past. No matter how often Tommy Gavin acts out the role of the prick, he is the hero (no scare quotes necessary), and the women just get in his way. Mad Men, in showing us that past, offers a critique of the gender relations of the time by showing how destructive they ultimately are to both men and women. It's a deeper series than Rescue Me, not to mention a better one.