This new Showtime series stars Edie Falco as a wry, knowing, harried emergency room nurse. The show offers a terrific vehicle for the versatile actor, as a well-written, smart and funny situation-based character study that takes advantage of Falco’s intelligent, restrained emotional presence and her quirky humor. Unlike network doctor dramas like ER, women characters propel Nurse Jackie’s narratives. Jackie begins each episode with a brief voice-over remark, and then the story continues from her perspective.
Jackie’s best friend at work is Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), an elegant Brit whose arrogance is matched by her intelligence and wit. The upstairs/downstairs aspect of their friendship provides lots of comic fuel—O’Hara often refers casually to how much she spent on various items of clothing, from her $1,200 scarf to her almost as expensive silk stockings. Jackie and her bar-owning husband clearly pinch pennies to make it through their week. Jackie rolls her eyes at her friend’s profligacy, but her indulgence of O’Hara’s class idiosyncrasies emphasizes their bond as women in a professional environment skewed to favor men.
Pompous and powerful male doctors are represented here by Dr. “Coop” Cooper (Peter Facinelli), an Ivy League grad who struts into the ER with a blimp-size ego that Jackie promptly deflates when Coop’s misdiagnosis—against Jackie’s instincts—causes a young patient’s death. After the first few episodes, Jackie’s frequent corrections seem to be bringing Coop into line; he’s cultivating his human side and considering his patients’ emotional needs. In a recent episode he lavished rather sweet attention on an elderly woman on one of her regular trips to the ER from a nursing home. Coop adjusts her wig and compliments her vanity while writing her scrips, even though when she soon expires, he’s out by the nurses’ station boasting of how skillfully he handled his first gunshot wound patient a few curtains down.
Facinelli plays Coop with a dollop of humility and lots of magnanimity, although even he seems uncomfortable with the character’s odd, unconscious tendency to grab women’s breasts when he’s anxious (a completely gratuitous quirk that says more about the producers’ anxiety about the women characters’ strength than Coop’s). This week’s episode revealed that Coop is the son of lesbian parents (deliciously played by Swoozie Kurtz and Blythe Danner), a plot twist that also particularizes and humanizes a character who could be a too stereotypically thoughtless and self-involved heel. O’Hara, in fact, looks at Coop differently once she realizes he has two mothers; the information makes him more than a run-of-the-mill, ambitious male doc.
Nurse Jackie draws all of Jackie’s relationships with men in refreshing, slightly off-beat ways. She’s married to a sweet guy who cares for their two young daughters while he runs the bar they own in
Jackie’s secrets, though, keep the character complicated. She never slides into the self-abnegating golden-hearted-but-gruff nurse stereotype that lurks just around the corner of this story. So far, the show avoids that pitfall, gilding Jackie’s essential goodness with enough sardonic cynicism to keep her from being a simple saint. Her first-year student nurse, Zoey (Merritt Wever), offers her a useful foil, as Zoey delivers the platitudes about wanting to help people that drives some idealistic young women and men into nursing in the first place.
Put up against Jackie’s unsentimental pragmatism, Zoey’s enthusiasm plays as funny but not quite ridiculous. The character could easily be the butt of facile jokes—Zoey is a bit chunky, not conventionally beautiful, and too open and cuddly for what proves the ER’s more cut-throat environment. But instead, she gets her own sharp edges. Wever’s loose physicality gives Zoey embodied, character-driven humor; for instance, when O’Hara blithely walks off with Zoey’s new stethoscope, the young nurse’s attempts to retrieve it provide Wever with moments of stuttering explanation and stealthy borrowings that show off Zoey’s agency and nascent power, instead of belittling her as inept.
Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman), Jackie’s nursing colleague, unfortunately bears the burden of race and sexuality in the narrative, a load too heavy for any one actor to carry easily. Sleiman’s features are ethnically ambiguous (his character’s full name is Mohammed de la Cruz), allowing him fill the “colored” slot in the character list, and his slightly fey, gentle presence and willingness to give Zoey fashion advice betray his gayness. Although his easy relationship with Jackie gives Sleiman and Falco some nice moments, so far, Mo-Mo represents still another gay person of color serving the development of the far more centralized white characters, a narrative strategy we could by now all do without.
On the other hand, Anna Deveare Smith makes regular appearances as Mrs. Akalitus, a nurse-turned-hospital administrator now charged with guarding the bottom line. The character is a hard-assed factotum, but Smith brings her, too, subtle off-beat humor. When she borrows what she thinks is a packet of Jackie’s sugar, and unknowingly gets high on the painkillers Jackie has ground up and put into the packet instead, Smith’s performance as the suddenly high and goofy administrator is priceless.
In another episode, Akalitus finds a taser gun lying in the corridor. After she shouts with anger to no one in particular about how irresponsible it is to leave such things lying around, she gets on an elevator and prompting stuns herself with the gun. Her electrified pratfall is hilarious. Watching Smith, who usually plays the steely, powerful, alpha female roles in films and television shows, play a comic character role makes me admire her acting even more.
Many terrific New York-based actors play the ER’s patients and visitors, offering keenly observed turns as the sick and dying and their families. The situations into which they’re written, however, are often predictable and run to stereotypes. For example, in Episode #3, Lynn Cohen is on hand as an elderly Jewish woman who tends to her dying husband’s heart disease with chicken soup. Their scenes are saccharine and lachrymose, their Jewish accents wearying echoes of vaudeville sketches about Jews and their magic ministrations that should be put to rest soon.
Likewise, the Latina mother whose son’s lung collapsed in a playground accident speaks with a thick accent, and her other son is excessively emotionally expressive; the elderly white woman who’s regularly delivered to the ER from her nursing home is vain about her appearance; the tourists from the Mid-West are white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and apologize for everything (even though the woman turns out to be an opium addict, offering a neat mirror for Jackie’s developing habit); and an international diplomat savagely murders a prostitute but can’t be touched, thanks to his legislated immunity. Jackie navigates these characters and their issues deftly, always looking out for the well-deserving underdog and wreaking what vengeance she can on the powerful and evil. But they still remain vehicles in which to drive her character, rather than truly interesting people of their own.
Nurse Jackie swivels from wistful and wry to parodic and satirical fairly quickly. For instance, when Jackie and her husband Kevin attend a meeting at their daughter Grace’s school, the teacher, the school psychologist, and the school nurse are played in high farce and shot from camera angles that make them appear large and confrontational to the prosaic, confused Jackie and Kevin. But the small family’s scenes at home are wistfully realist, as the girls cuddle with Kevin on their parents’ bed watching television while they wait for Jackie to come home at night. The combination of exaggerated and earnest works, as Nurse Jackie’s sharp humor oscillates between its poignant observations about the proximity of death to life and its insights about how we navigate all those moments in between.
The Feminist Spectator