UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — "Rescue Me" is by no stretch of the imagination a documentary, but a lot of what happens in this series comes from the real lives of real New York firefighters, which is sort of a mixed blessing, given that the behavior of the fictional FDNYers includes drinking, smoking, swearing, womanizing, bigotry and even the occasional bit of thievery.

"Basically, in my experience, the firefighters around the country . . . love the show, because it's a glimpse into what it's like to be in what's considered the greatest firefighting force in the world, which is New York," said Denis Leary, the show's star, co-creator, executive producer and writer. "And in New York, it's become a mixture of guys that I know that things are based on, getting worried that their wives or their girlfriends are going to believe that everything on the show is absolutely true, (and) a general feeling with some of the older guys that they didn't realize how true it was going to be — and it's cutting close to the bone."

Peter Tolan, the show's other co-creator, executive producer and writer, added, "We used to hear initially that a lot of the firefighters would say, 'You know, I hope you're going to do something that's a little more realistic, because shows like 'Third Watch' are just (expletive). And I think a lot of those firefighters are now saying, 'Well, you know, 'Third Watch' is not bad.' "

"Rescue Me," which opens its second season tonight at 11 on cable's FX network, is definitely not a broadcast-network series. It remains very funny, very rough and frequently profane, centered on firefighter Tommy Gavin (Leary). By the end of last season, Tommy — still suffering from the loss of his cousin/best friend in the attack on the World Trade Towers — seemed to hit bottom both on the job (where he was directly responsible for another firefighter being injured) and at home (where his ex-wife took off with his kids).

You'd hardly think his life could get any worse. Can it?

"Well, yeah," Leary said.

"Always worse," Tolan said. "And I think that what we like to do is offer some hope, and then snatch it away."

Which is not to say that "Rescue Me" is not a very, very funny show. In tonight's season premiere, Tommy finds himself exiled to a station on Staten Island, where there are no fires to fight, and he's fined every time he swears.

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He's fined a lot.

Tommy is trying to turn his life around — and quit drinking — but it isn't easy. And it's darkly funny amid the tragedies and near-tragedies.

"As dark as we go and as dramatic as we go, within that same episode we feel that we can go as far in the comedic direction as possible," Tolan said. "We're always trying to show that balance of people living in a life-and-death situation, and how they respond and how they blow off steam and how they get through the day and how they react in the face of that."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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