On TV: Nurse Jackie
The conventional wisdom is that it's not length, but girth that really matters. However true that might be, after watching the pilot and many subsequent episodes of Showtime's new medical dark comedy Nurse Jackie, it seems that this show needs elongation to really tell a full story. Not that Nurse Jackie isn't thick with confident acting rooted in clearly-drawn characters, but a half-hour doesn't do the material justice. When you have to be dramatic and profound and conflicted and symbolic in that short of a time period, sometimes, well, you're going to come up short.
This is Edie Falco's return to premium cable (after providing a strong foil to Alec Baldwin on a short 30 Rock arc) and there's no reason to even drop the C-word in this review. It's been a long time since Journey played off the role of the mob matriarch that vaulted Falco from an outstanding New York dramatic actress to a national treasure, and there's no reason to even strain for comparison between the roles. As nurse Jackie Peyton, Falco is a been-there-done-that, battle-scarred RN with the gift of New York sarcasm, intuitive bedside manner and a bad back, with the prescription drug dependency that must attend any hint of chronic pain these days. (Is the medical professional with an opioid addiction a television trope or is my internist bumping oxy between patients?)
Jackie works at All Saints Hospital, and despite the semi-ironic name, her co-workers seem to be trying as hard as her, despite their bugaboos. The nurse's point-of-view is privileged, naturally, and Jackie spends much of her time with gay Mo-mo (Haaz Sleiman) and new girl Zoey (Merritt Wever, who almost steals scenes from Falco, if that's even possible) discussing the various ways doctors and administrators prevent them from getting their work done. Those higher-ups are a mixed bag, from Jackie's glamorous friend Dr. O'Hara (Eve Best) to the which-way-to-the-keg Dr. Cooper a.k.a. "Coop" (Peter Facinelli) and your classic hard-nosed old school supervisor Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith). All of these characters depend on Jackie in some way, while Jackie depends on pharmacist Eddie Walzer (Paul Schulze) for her meds and the occasional quickie. Jackie has a life and a family outside of work, but it almost seems like revealing a spoiler to discuss their presence in the pilot. (They move closer to the center of the action in each succeeding episode.)
That a woman can have two active spheres of life is not unusual in cable television, and Nurse Jackie's lead-in Weeds deftly balances the trade-off between the drug trade and family life and artfully conflates the two. But in a half-hour medical dramedy where producers have to feature all of those characters while still following one medical case through the episode and delivering heavy messages about health and pain ("What do you doctors have against healing people, for Christ's sake?"), there are moments in the writing when basic symbolism is substituted for more specific character insights. Jackie's actions - e.g. taking off her wedding ring before her shift (marital problems!) - are emphasized and reemphasized unnecessarily, but it's Falco and those insanely expressive eyes (the short hair only strengthens her greatest acting tool) that keep these gestures and screenwriter tricks (e.g. a husband makes pancakes in two different yet similar contexts) from making this preachier than one of the purposefully unfunny M*A*S*H episodes.
The first time I watched the pilot, it felt a bit like the pilot of Mad Men, showing a day in the worklife of a hardened protagonist as they accomplish minor miracles and avoid the pitfalls at the office, finally returning home to a seemingly incompatible domestic identity. That tension is present in Nurse Jackie on a character level, but no one except Falco is getting enough air. If they open a window and let some of that hospital smell out, allow a few more ragged edges and asymmetries in the episode plots, then the gallows (I.C.U.?) humor will ring funnier and the show's heart to beat louder. Not that the vital signs aren't steady, but they should be stronger. Rating (out of 10): 7.