What Edie Falco did on "The Sopranos" was remarkable and she has three Emmys and countless other trophies to prove it. She took a character who could just as easily have veered into caricature and made her more complicated and more real with every passing season. But I didn't instantly warn to Falco on "The Sopranos." It took me a while to see how she was getting underneath the character's familiar Jersey Wife exterior.
After only seeing six episodes of Falco's new Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," nobody is going to rationally argue that the decorated actress is necessarily giving a better performance or that the series is a better vehicle for her talent, but what I'll say is this: It took me maybe 15 minutes to latch onto the excellence of Falco's "Nurse Jackie" performance and subsequent episodes offer no let-down. Because Jackie is a more grounded character, it's probably a less challenging role for Falco to play, but that shouldn't take away from the pleasure of having one of the medium's very finest actresses back on the small screen.
[More review after the break...]
"Nurse Jackie," which premieres on Monday (June 8) on Showtime, is at the vanguard of a new wave of shows championing the cause of nurses. For this, I suspect we can blame shows like "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," which have almost willfully pretended that nurses don't exist and that doctors are the ones running the tests, sitting with the patients, talking to the families and basically performing full-service medicine at most hospitals. Because TV's two most popular recent medical dramas have been so dismissive of the importance of nurses in the healthcare business, it's no wonder that "Nurse Jackie," plus TNT's upcoming "Hawthorne" and NBC's midseason drama "Mercy" arrive with chips on their shoulders and very important points they need to make.
Doctors diagnose, "Nurse Jackie" tells us in several episodes. Nurses heal. Doctors were the freaks who grew up dissecting bunnies, we're told, while nurses are the ones who actually care about making people better. Nurses are the heros, the ones working long hours and fighting against both the hotshot doctors and the stifling bureaucracy that cares more about flipping beds that wellness.
Sure. Why not?
Falco's Jackie rules the roost at All Saints Hospital. She sets the schedules and keeps both the nurses and the doctors in line. Of course, she's got issues of her own, including a bad back and an addiction to a variety of pain-killing medications. She's also carrying on a workplace love affair with pharmacist Eddie (Paul Schultze who, yes, appeared with Falco on "The Sopranos"), which she balances with a loving husband (Dominic Fumusa) and two kids back home.
Creators Linda Wallem, Liz Brixius and Evan Dunsky work very hard to lay all of Nurse Jackie's contradictions out there in the very first episode, which is either a tremendous piece of screenwriting economy, or a recipe for entirely too much up-front character work. Part of what makes Falco so instantly amazing is that Nurse Jackie doesn't feel like an over-written ball of carefully planned character contractions. She feels like a woman teetering on a balance beam, but we're still able to watch her holding everything together. The problem with all of these built-in conflicts is that the production team will inevitably feel the need, probably by the end of Season One, to push everything -- the drugs, the work-husband/home-husband, the long hours that we're frequently being reminded up -- to a crisis. Forcing things to crisis is good for drama and good for Emmys, but Falco's a good enough actress to simply embody tension and the way she does it is never boring.
Here's the thing you may not get from the description of the show: "Nurse Jackie" is a comedy, a fact that I forgot when I first watched the pilot. The dominant tone is, indeed, a dark humor, but but the show's pacing and visual style are that of a hybrid and it was only when the episode ended after 28-ish minutes that I recalled the genre pigeon-hole that "Nurse Jackie" finds itself in. The half-hour format means that the patients who come through All Saints only sometimes get to be the focus for an episode. They're usually good for one or two sympathetic moments or a laugh or to force a character detail into the open. Nurse Jackie isn't going around making miraculous diagnoses and we only sometimes visit the operating room. The patient arcs sometimes go unresolved.
It's a workplace dramedy, not a procedural, so sometimes it's just enough that the characters are in the workplace, rather than what they do there.
Falco has been surrounded by a solid cast, though it takes a few episodes for the supporting players to get their moments to shine, which is one of the minor drawbacks of the half-hour format. Much early time goes to Dr. O'Hara (Eve Best), Jackie's wealthy, hilariously callous lunchtime buddy and to the very funny Merritt Wever as Zoey, a nervous newbie nursing student. Somebody in the writing room was smart enough to recognize that Zoey and O'Hara make for a great pairing and the two share more and more scenes as the season progresses. Haaz Sleiman's Mo-Mo is presented as a slightly stereotypical catty gay nurse, but the more he has to do, the better he gets. The same is also true for Peter Facinelli, who initially comes across as just a goofy, unintentionally dangerous doctor who insists on being called "Coop," only to become much more by Episode Six. Schultze is likable and Eddie's relationship with Jackie is relatively unique.
From the beginning, "Nurse Jackie" earns its dramatic moments, so it will never fall into the trap that plagued "Weeds" last season, where the shift into real bleakness never felt deserved. After only six episodes, "Nurse Jackie" has proven itself capable of being funny, heart-breaking, spiritual, touching and, more than anything, humane. Falco's the hook to bring viewers in, but "Nurse Jackie" has the makings of a show that will be worthy of her talent.
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