‘I don’t do chatty. Quiet and mean: Those are my people.”
That’s the voice of Jackie Peyton, the anti-heroine at the center of Edie Falco’s smart, acrid, alternately sharp and sentimental new series on Showtime—the best series yet in the cable channel’s ongoing meditation on the nature of addiction (though Dexter’s first season came close) and the setting for a truly breakthrough female character, not to mention the welcome return to cable television of Edie Falco.
Structurally, Nurse Jackie shares DNA with every hospital series on back to Dr. Kildare, with its wrenching ER intakes, families getting bad news, patients mirroring back the staff’s emotional issues—the whole grinding, agitating, desensitizing rub up against the “worst day of everyone’s life,” as Jackie describes her job. It’s a crumbling-system show, like St. Elsewhere; a nurse show, like Julia (or ER’s gritty portrait of Maura Tierney’s Abby); a half-hour drama with darkly comic elements, like an inverse of Scrubs. And like House, The Mentalist, Lie to Me, and every other “cranky and/or socially inept genius” series (Scrubs, Bones, Monk, I could go on), Nurse Jackie pivots on a difficult medical personality: sharp-tongued, sly, egotistical.
But Nurse Jackie also acts as a rebuke to these shows, particularly to soapy mulch like Grey’s Anatomy or the easy heroism of early ER. Because while Jackie is a great nurse, she’s also, and very centrally, a pill-head. The series’ opening is a trippy sequence that mixes T. S. Eliot with the elegiac camp of the theme from Valley of the Dolls, and the show punctuates scenes of Jackie’s work and her home life with flashes of the true and hidden center of her day: dreamy shots of powders cut, snorted, drifting through the air. We may love her for her insight, for Falco’s prickly intelligence and her rare adult grace, but we can’t ignore the fact that even at her most compassionate moments, Jackie is privately calculating how to get her next hit.
It’ll be interesting to see how audiences react to such a female character: Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, Jackie is never entirely knowable. She’s a charismatic cipher, a con woman in the scrubs of a saint—loving but manipulative, with a trickster’s impulses. Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House is one obvious analog; Jackie’s got a bit of Hawkeye Pierce in her too—a sharp-elbowed player who earns her sanctimony with the intelligence of her outrage. But the fact that she’s a woman, and a mother, is unsettling and new for TV: With her hair in flattened porcupine prickles, eyes squinting shrewdly, Falco’s bold, aggressive adult physicality (and her sneaky, bossy sexuality) is a welcome jolt in a universe of coltish supermodels. When the first episode mimics Mad Men’s final-curtain revelation, it’s a jolt to realize that this is a working mom who is perpetually stoned.
None of this is to say the show is perfect. I’ve watched the first six episodes, and there are tonal missteps along the way—in particular, sloppy slapstick with a cartoonish administrator (Anna Deavere Smith). And though Haaz Sleiman is appealing as the sassy male nurse, the California Supreme Court should refocus its energies on outlawing any future use of that “Oh, snap” gesture among gay sidekicks. At times, there’s a dangerous undercurrent of anti-sentimentality, a risk of sentimentalizing curmudgeonliness itself.
But for all these flaws, I still found the series excitingly ambitious—funny, sexy, strange. Edie Falco and the show’s producers are recovering addicts, and the series doesn’t shy away from the irreconcilable ironies of Jackie’s behavior. She’s an alcoholic who touts her sobriety, then screws the hospital pharmacist. (For love? For drugs? Like Mad Men, the show allows these mysteries to exist without overexplaining.) Jackie reaches for a hidden pill as her daughters watch TV; she hides diced Seconal in sugar packets (“It hits your system like a bolt of lightning, which is only a problem if you’re afraid of lightning, which I’m not”); she gives gentle guidance to a fellow addict even while squirreling away the patient’s tips on how to score. Jackie’s naïve student nurse (a charmingly odd Merritt Wever) calls her a “saint,” but then Jackie nearly kills a patient. And when Falco sobs, “I almost killed you”—she knows the mistake came from overwork, from being high all shift long—it feels like this is her daily terror: She’s always pushing off the catastrophe that can’t be prevented.
Of course, Jackie is a kind of a hero, too. The pilot’s final sequence features a bravura Robin Hood–like sequence, in which punishment descends on the powerful and gifts are offered to the victims. But if the show honors its best impulses, it will risk our sympathies, too—letting us see what might happen when the powder drifts higher, when Jackie’s basic generosity, her love and concern for fairness, is obscured by that selfish sizzle of hidden need.