Showtime's new half-hour comedy-drama, Nurse Jackie, is good cause for hope and high expectations.
For one thing, it stars Edie Falco, who racked up numerous awards, including three Emmys, for her work on The Sopranos. For another, it looks like Showtime finally has a worthy companion to its nose-thumbing Monday-night comedy, Weeds, which immediately precedes Nurse Jackie.
Last year, the network successfully paired Weeds with suitably "shocking" fare. But despite drawing record-high ratings for Showtime, Secret Diary of a Call Girl looked and felt like Cinemax After Dark, which really does make you feel kind of dirty after watching it (especially at 3 a.m.).
At least the requisite shock value in Nurse Jackie comes with an appealing main character, ER nurse Jackie Peyton of New York City. She's a hard-ass who knows more about dealing with patients than most doctors, and she takes crap from nobody.
In the first episode, she struggles to save a young bike messenger's life while a Bluetooth-wearing, douche-y young doctor (Peter Facinelli) condescendingly waves her off. ("I know what I'm doing," he smarms. "Jesus. Bossy.")
Later in the day, she fends off grief from a "wicked witch" administrator, who complains about nurses being overscheduled in one breath, then asks Jackie to work a double in the next.
She takes it upon herself to get on the phone and harangue the organ donation collector to get his ass over to the hospital when a patient dies. She meets with bereaved families, something you'd think the doctor would do. She plays the role of avenger when the powerless have been wronged.
Zoey (Merritt Wever) the mousy first-year nurse who has been assigned to shadow Jackie, learns fast about her temperament and style when she tries to make some introductory small talk.
"I don't like chatty," Jackie snaps. "I don't do chatty. I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people."
After one day of watching her new mentor, Zoey is in awe: "I think you're a saint. Just so you know."
Saint? Not exactly. Jackie also snorts painkillers whenever she can slip away unnoticed. She gets them from a hospital pharmacist (Paul Schulze), with whom she has quickie hospital sex.
The show gets all arty and fetishistic about the drug stuff. Even the music selections are love songs to dope from a hipster's jukebox—"Theme From Valley of the Dolls," "Walk on the Wild Side," "She's a Rainbow." And when Jackie pops open a capsule to release the tiny red grains inside for snorting, they fall in slow motion and bounce off the cold steel surface like perfect little rubies. It brings the dope-worshipping hallucinations in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy to mind.
For all her talk about "earthly pleasures" staving off sainthood, however, Jackie's drug addiction seems to have a nonhedonistic origin. "Whaddaya call a nurse with a bad back? Unemployed!" she explains in her opening monologue.
Only the first episode was available for review, and while it makes a good impression, its main purpose is to establish that Jackie is a badass and that it may be worth it to stick around and see what this show is really about. So far, there are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, such as one that involves "inappropriate sexual touching," as well as gross-outs and a cheap firecracker joke that belongs in one of Saturday Night Live's old "Appalachian Emergency Room" skits.
There are also heart-wrenching moments that don't feel manipulative, and much of the credit has to go to Falco. To get an idea how this show was developed, just head on over to the Internet Movie Database, where the show's original placeholder name is listed as Untitled Edie Falco Project. It's her vehicle, and in less than a minute she makes you forget all about Carmela Soprano. She'll be a pleasure to watch as she peels away the layers of a promising antiheroine.
Nurse Jackie will get an enviable launch by following the season opener of Showtime's mainstay, the ever-fragrant Weeds, now back for its fifth season. So, where did we leave off?
Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), the pot-dealing suburban mom from California, is pregnant with her third child, which is the only thing keeping her from being offed (for now?) by her Mexican gangster boyfriend, Esteban Reyes (Demian Bichir), who's also the dad. She talked to the feds last season about his drug organization, when she found out he was bringing young Mexican girls over the border to sell them into prostitution, and he knows.
Her teen sons, Shane (Alexander Gould) and Silas (Hunter Parrish), are taking up the family business—Silas on the growing side, and Shane on the middle-school dealer side. (In a hilarious bit of "later that same day" that occurs between last season and this one, Shane has grown about a foot taller, and his voice has dropped an octave. Puberty—it's hell on continuity.)
Meanwhile, no-good Celia Hodes (Elizabeth Perkins) has been kidnapped by her oldest daughter, Quinn (Haley Hudson), as payback for shipping her off to boarding school. It's as ludicrous as anything out of All My Children, but it sets up a good running joke as Quinn's boyfriend starts making calls to find someone, anyone, to pay up and save Celia's life. Good luck.
Back on the home front, everybody's mad at Nancy for getting pregnant—especially brother-in-law Andy, who's in love with her, and the gangster boyfriend, who still wants to kill her. At least the Botwins' permanent houseguest, Doug (the genius Kevin Nealon), is having fun, despite a nasty rope burn on his neck from autoerotic asphyxiation.
Sound like Weeds to you? Yep, same old Weeds, and if you already loved its crass, outrageous and very funny affronts against all that is decent in society, mixed in with some good old-fashioned scary danger, then you know what to do.