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TELEVISION REVIEW

Third season of ‘Nurse Jackie’ may be habit-forming

Edie Falco (left, with Merritt Wever) returns for a third season as the pill-popping title character in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.’’ Edie Falco (left, with Merritt Wever) returns for a third season as the pill-popping title character in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.’’ (Ken Regan/Showtime)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 28, 2011

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At the end of season two of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,’’ our high and mighty heroine was confronted about her pill abuse by her loving husband and her best friend. Her response: She locked herself in the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and sarcastically said “Blow me.’’ She was talking to them, but she was staring at herself. It was perfect, “Nurse Jackie’’ at its acid best.

The series returns for season three tonight at 10 with just more denial — fierce, convoluted, Jackie-style denial. With this bracing and comic new set of 12 episodes, “Nurse Jackie’’ has evolved into a rigorous, fascinating portrait of denial, of how it works when someone deceives herself and everyone around her. These days, the vague word “denial’’ gets thrown around a lot, when a person defends herself from an unwanted truth. The “Nurse Jackie’’ writing team, including executive producers Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, have taken on the word as their great subject, picking apart each strand of Jackie’s staunch refusals. After being confronted, Jackie becomes only more entrenched in her stronghold of lies.

The central irony of the show is that Jackie is an extraordinary healer. This season, Jackie’s gifts as an advocate for and friend to desperate patients and families is as stark as ever. In tonight’s premiere she is an angel to a man whose son is on life support, walking him through his own denial and out the other side. She is magical with a kid who has a dentist’s mouth-mirror stuck up his nose, when the self-involved Dr. Fitch Cooper (Peter Facinelli) is at a loss. And her devoted best friend, Dr. Ellie O’Hara (Eve Best), would do anything for her. But still, particularly in light of a new bond with a shady stranger, she’s chasing her “bottom,’’ the point when an addict has fallen low enough to start trying to get better.

Like most Showtime series, “Nurse Jackie’’ is a tonal hybrid; as dire and dramatic as Jackie’s situation may be, the episodes (tonight’s is directed by Steve Buscemi) consistently veer into sweetly absurdist humor. Happy news for Zoey fans! The budding, adorably self-conscious nurse played indelibly by Merritt Wever is at the fore of the action this season. Her geeky love affair with paramedic Lenny (Lenny Jacobson) has her dancing around the ER, when she’s not hitting the wall over it. God — that would be the crazy hospital neighbor who rants and raves — has moved a stolen piano into the ambulance bay, and Zoey confesses all her anxieties to him while he sits tinkling keys. It’s a lovely bit of whimsy. Wever has created one of the dearest supporting characters on TV right now.

The closest show to “Nurse Jackie’’ may be FX’s “Rescue Me,’’ which also tracks a brave, addicted hero who can save everyone but himself. But while “Rescue Me’’ has worn out its premise and padded too many hours with repetitive material over the years, “Nurse Jackie’’ is still at the early stages of its exploration. And Jackie is a more sympathetic figure, even as she lies about lying, juggling her deceptions like a dazzling acrobat. We know that, while she is hurting those around her — her husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), her lover, Eddie (Paul Schulze), Ellie, and her daughters — she is doing more extreme damage to someone else. And that would be the woman who stands so defiantly in her mirror.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

NURSE JACKIE

Starring: Edie Falco, Eve Best, Merritt Wever, Paul Schulze, Peter Facinelli, Anna Deavere Smith, Dominic Fumusa

On: Showtime

Time: Tonight, 10-10:30