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Michael J. Fox helps 'Rescue Me' open new season

THE SHOW "Rescue Me"

WHEN | WHERE Tonight at 10 on FX

REASON TO WATCH The start of the long-delayed fifth season.

WHAT'S NEW Michael J. Fox joins as Dwight, the new lover of Janet Gavin (Andrea Roth).

CATCHING UP One of the last major casualties of the 2007-08 writers' strike returns after nearly a year and a half - the fourth season finale aired in September 2007 - so a refresher is certainly in order. Season four ended with the death of Tommy Gavin's ( Denis Leary) dad, Mike (Charles Durning), who collapsed at a Newark Bears baseball game. Far from perturbed, Tommy keeps staring at the game in progress.

WHAT TONIGHT'S ABOUT The key fact that you should know about this season is that 9/11 again assumes center stage, as the guys of the FDNY's 62 Truck recount their memories to a beautiful French journalist named Genevieve Lazard (Karina Lombard, "The L Word"), who's writing a book on the tragedy. The process churns up old emotions and (yes) passions.

Franco (Daniel Sunjata) tells her, "My opinions are not popular. 9/11? An inside job . . . Are you single?" Tommy's still sober, but not Mickey Gavin (Robert John Burke), who's morose over the loss of Bootsie, the dog. The rest of the family is mourning Mike - though Tommy refrains.

Meanwhile, he's fighting the Section 8 that Chief Feinberg pulled on him. (A section 8? Means he's insane.) Mike (Michael Lombardi), Sean (Steven Pasquale) and Franco decide to open a bar to attract women. And Tommy's ex, Janet, has a new beau, Dwight, who pulls Tommy's chain the minute they meet.

BOTTOM LINE A long absence and a preoccupation with a mountain of other shows made me forget some fundamental truths about "Rescue Me." But watching the other day, all sorts of stuff came right back, and forcefully so. The writing remains top-flight - as good as anything, anywhere on TV - while the acting remains superb. These characters seem so real and vivid that you can almost see their bodies tumble off the screen into your living room. But what I really forgot was how funny "Rescue Me" is, or can be. Imagine: One of TV's bleakest shows is also one of TV's best comedies. What a marvel.

GRADE A+

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