'Nurse Jackie' a sinner, saint
On the subject of "Nurse Jackie," Edie Falco's new half-hour dramedy on Showtime, I promise you this: A few episodes in, you will forget about the very existence of Carmela Soprano.
Instead, you will see Falco entirely, indelibly, as Jackie Peyton, a hardworking ER nurse with a maintenance-free haircut, nonexistent nails, and an outlook on life that can be described as darkly realistic. She works at a Catholic hospital in New York City named, most ironically, All Saints - a setting that provides ample opportunity for morally questionable actions in the shadow of religious statues. She's very good at her job, but she's addicted to painkillers, to manage both a bad back and the pressure of everyday life.
She's also sleeping with the pharmacist who quietly feeds her habit - and who has no idea she's married with two kids. (In a lovely television inside joke, he's played by Paul Schulze, who was Father Phil on "The Sopranos.")
On some level, Jackie is a realist; she knows that she's a sinner, taking advantage of her pharmacist boyfriend while treating her husband (Dominic Fumusa), a bar owner who does plenty of laundry and child care, like the loyal rube that he is. But she doesn't take much time to wrestle with self-doubt. In one comic scene, a few episodes in, she speaks into two cellphones at once, telling each man, "Can't talk. Love ya."
She's terse that way, and clings to her hospital persona as a grizzled, weary veteran, the kind who chews out doctors and has no patience for niceties. "I don't do chatty," she warns a young nursing student (Merritt Wever) in the premiere. "I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people."
But her protege sees who Jackie really is: a softie. Even a saint. And Falco is brilliant at showing us a woman who is neither warm nor sweet but still exudes compassion, especially toward herself. When we see what a nurse's job entails - the death, the angry patients, the absurd and rigid rules - we hardly begrudge her the pharmaceuticals. "Nurse Jackie" constantly asks us whether life necessitates a little artificial help, chemical or otherwise. It's filled with artistic slow-motion shots of various pills and powders, from crushed Percoset dropped into a coffee cup to the contents of a painkiller capsule snorted up a nose. At one point, Jackie takes a drawing by her preteen daughter - flagged by concerned teachers, because it contains only shades of black and grey - and scribbles in a bright yellow sun. "There," she says to herself. "Was that so hard?"
It's one of the many signs that "Nurse Jackie" is an artifact of pay cable, quite different from the network medical shows that lionize doctors and fetishize disease. This show tells us what anyone who has ever stayed in a hospital already knows: that nurses, not doctors, are the cornerstones of the patient experience. More to the point, it keeps up with the speed of everyday life. The sorts of moral dilemmas that would take up an entire episode of "Grey's Anatomy" - organ donation, assisted suicide - pass by here without a blink. Characters make their choices, then move on. This is a show about consequences, not actions.
The consequences, though, offer ample room for pathos, and a terrific set of supporting characters makes it clear why Nurse Jackie needs the pills. Too many people depend on her, from a gay male nurse named "Mo-Mo" (Haaz Sleiman) to Wever's Zoey Barkow, who's a constant scene-stealer: nervous, overeager, and uncannily perceptive.
Anna Deavere Smith offers surprising comic relief as a nurse-turned-hospital administrator. Best of all, perhaps, is Peter Facinelli as Dr. Fitch Cooper, a handsome young doctor who carries himself with overconfident bluster. He starts the series looking like a stereotypical frat boy; Jackie typecasts him brutally in one early scene. The more we learn about him, the less he fits her preconceptions, and we watch Jackie watching him with increasing respect.
If there's a glaring flaw, it's in the character of Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best), a wealthy British doctor who breezes through the hospital carrying Barneys shopping bags, and treats Jackie to meals every day at fancy New York restaurants. As comic relief, she's far too thin. "Nurse Jackie" has much richer, darker comedy to offer - as when Jackie gives a stroke patient a set of note cards with expletives written on them, so he can communicate with his bickering family. She knows what people need; she's a nurse, after all, an artificial ray of sunshine in a very dreary place.