When Nurse Jackie premiered on Showtime last June, I turned it off after 10 minutes or so, bored and disappointed. Having just watched the first season in three days, one disc at a time, I have to wonder where my head was. Avoiding the broad whimsy of other Showtime series, and the doctor-centric drama of other hospital shows, Nurse Jackie is a true gem resting largely on Edie Falco's shoulders. If I could go back in time eight months, I'd tell myself, "Seriously, dude, just finish the one show. You'll be hooked. And get a haircut, hippie!"
If you look down upon self-medicating with vices to cope for the troubles of daily life, your sympathy for the characters of Nurse Jackie may wither. To speak schmaltzily, it's a show about healthcare workers who may in fact need more healing than their patients. The Manhattan All-Saints Hospital staff may look like a crack team of well-balanced physicians, but personal anarchy abounds. It's a testament to objectivity that the show's drug use is neither glorified nor demonized, and adulterous relationships fly high above the well-trodden waters of soap opera. As in life, you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't, so you may as well make the most of it.
The cast is large and talented, though no one can outshine Falco's understated "thereness." She dazzles, even as her daily life is full of reprehensible actions. The damage done to her own body and psyche does not reflect the objective compassion she holds for her patients...most of them, anyway. She's schtupping an in-house pharmacist, Eddie (Paul Schulze), for his access to strong medications like Vicodin and Adderall. There is a genuine attraction, but it has to be kept hush-hush because she has a loving, bar-owning husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), and daughters Grace (Ruby Jerins) and Fiona (Daisy Tahan). In fact, she keeps almost all details of her private life away from her coworkers; the only ones aware are gay friend/nurse Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman) and best friend Dr. Elenor O'Hara (Eve Best). Other characters include resident newbies Dr. "Coop" Cooper (Peter Facinelli) and Zoey (Merritt Wever). Everybody is solid as can be, the only exception being hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith), who seems like an antagonistic caricature, though the actress does a fine job with it.
It's hard to pin down exactly what makes this show so good. Nurse Jackie breaks free from a particular brand of drama where climax seems to be the only narrative conceit. No, that doesn't mean it's slow or unexciting. It means storylines are laid in place, explored, and are allowed to grow before conflict and resolution rear their heads. Relationships between friends, foes, and family progress and become ever more complicated. The dialogue never quite sounds written, and you believe what they're saying, even when you know Jackie is telling the most bald-faced lies. You know that Coop compensates with cockiness, because the innocence in Facinelli's eyes belies the moronic comments exiting his mouth. You know that Eddie doesn't understand Jackie's need to keep their relationship quiet, but his grins in her presence signify that he doesn't need to, as long as she's around. There's no devil in these details, just excellence. I guess that's why Paul Feig and Steve Buscemi wanted to direct multiple episodes, mmhmm.
Nurse Jackie is notable as well for its strong female characters, and for stressing the importance of the nursing profession. That's two beautiful birds with one stone. Anyone with a medical history knows that a nurse is a much better friend to have than a doctor, because they've got it all in their head. These women are far from angels; some of their medical decisions are gut instincts and aren't strictly by the book, but recklessness is rarely tolerated. An ear gets flushed in revenge, an organ donor's family is thwarted, patients are admitted on the sly, and an old physician asks for an assist with her cancer treatment. Unethical, maybe, but none of it bucks the realism, and the patients are the ones benefiting from the opportunism.
And dammit, I'm sick of men being the only ones whose evil is treated frivolously (I'm looking at you, Nip/Tuck). I like seeing women do bad things, and it's not a sexist thing. It's more of a sexy thing. I like that Nancy Botwin sells weed. I like that Patty Hewes is a cutthroat lawyer. So if Jackie Peyton wants to fuck around on her lovingly boring husband and pop painkillers for a "bad back," then I'm watching. Because she doesn't do it guiltlessly. She seems to breeze through conversations with Kevin, and never appears overly concerned by Grace's decline in sanity (due to Jackie's constant absence), but it's clear that Jackie is affected. Her addictive ways may even be driving her secrecy and inattentiveness, as a way of mentally deluding herself into thinking that her pain can only be fixed with narcotics, rather than honesty. I've fallen into similar patterns at various times in my life, so I can't sympathize, but I do understand the motivations.
Through these 13 episodes, characters grow comfortable with one another and their jobs. Eddie is in danger of being replaced by a pill-dispensing computer. Coop has a nervous tic that causes him to grab a woman's breast when he's uncomfortable. Mo-Mo finds a bro-bro. Zoey doesn't quite conquer her spineless naiveté, but it's coming. Dr. O'Hara has her own familiar crises. Too funny to be a drama, too emotional to be a sitcom, and too smart to be called a dram-com, Nurse Jackie's only label should be "virtually spotless television." Season 2 can't come soon enough.
Showtime has put out another great set with Nurse Jackie, though I could have done with more. There are commentaries on fewer than half of the episodes, but they're so good I wanted every episode to have one. It sounds corny, but it's true. Creators Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem, and Evan Dunsky, along with several of the show's cast, tell great stories, share insight into the demons in their own lives, and talk about what it takes to make this show happen. I probably laughed more during the commentaries than the show itself, and this show has an awesomely dark sense of humor.
Each featurette's title shares its content, and they're all quite interesting due to the enjoyable cast and crew. "All About Edie" discusses the mastery of Falco's craft from many points of view. "Unsung Heroes" does a fine job of promoting the profession of nursing, and the cast applauds those behind the scenes. "Prepping Nurse Jackie" is an all-around background to the show, too short and never boring. The last feature is a joy as well. "Nurse Stories" lets a few nurses share some of the stranger stories from their lengthy careers.