Nurse Jackie: Series Premiere

I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results.

— Florence Nightingale

I don’t do chatty. I like quiet. Quiet and mean.

— Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco)

Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) is an adulterer and pill-popper. An ER nurse in New York City, she can be a real bitch, breaking the rules and the law with alarming frequency. She’s also the woman you want by your side should you find yourself injured or ill.

Showtime’s dark comedy Nurse Jackie presents Jackie’s life as split, part hard-nosed nurse and part loving wife and mother. The distinction between these worlds is represented by her wedding ring, which comes off each day when she leaves the house and goes back on when she comes home. Even on the job, two Jackies emerge: attentive, knowledgeable caregiver and gruff coworker. The complexity of her life and character makes Jackie one of the most interesting characters on TV.

Jackie has been on the job for quite some time, and there is little she hasn’t seen or dealt with before. Still, her patience is tested when she’s forced to work with two fresh-from-school newbies, Zoey (Merritt Wever), a nurse, and a doctor named Coop (Peter Facinelli). Zoey’s enthusiasm and awe predictably irritate Jackie, while Coop’s cavalier attitude and penchant for grabbing women’s breasts when he gets nervous (the result of his Tourette’s) earn her immediate distain. She’s more inclined to tolerate Eddie (Paul Schulze), the hospital pharmacist who gives her pills and screws her each day at noon.

The rest of Jackie’s days are routed through the freak show of the emergency room. As Jackie explains when Zoey has a moment of self-doubt, “This job is wading through a shitstorm of people on the very worst day of their lives. And just so you know, doctors are here to diagnose, not heal. We heal.” That’s not to say this process is easy: the cases here are both TV-show odd and compelling, including a man whose testicles have been mauled by his cat, a stoner kid who tried to shoot bottle rockets out his ass, and a dying elderly man who refuses medical treatment in favor of his wife’s chicken soup.

Fortunately, Jackie’s home life is less traumatic, although not problem-free. Ten-year old Grace (Ruby Jerins) has become obsessed with Armageddon and plagues, and Jackie and husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) can’t agree on the best course of action. And, of course, Jackie has to keep her drug use and affair secret.

This is a lot of action for a half-hour comedy, but Nurse Jackie is tightly written, with comedy emerging from small moments that add little to any given story arc. (After losing a patient, Jackie and fellow nurse Mo-Mo de la Cruz (Haaz Sleiman) lie in the pews of the chapel and contemplate what would be the appropriate side dish to serve with John the Baptist’s head: cole slaw? mac and cheese?) A good deal of the humor comes from the most strident character, hospital administrator Gloria Akilitus (Anna Deavere Smith), who accidentally Tazers herself in one episode and becomes high after drinking coffee laced Jackie’s percocet in another.

Much press has been devoted to Edie Falco’s return to TV, and she is dynamic in the role. Still, the strength of Nurse Jackie lies in its smart, respectful examination of a nurse’s life, grounded in a true appreciation for the thankless job nurses perform. As the show has it, that job can lead to disconcerting moral dilemmas. Jackie is not above breaking the law to achieve the greater good for her patients: she forges one patient’s organ donor card so his death isn’t a complete loss and steals from an arrogant wealthy patient to give to a young pregnant woman whose boyfriend has died. She also flushes an ear down the toilet so that it can’t be reattached to its owner, who lost it while slashing up a prostitute.

While such antics could seem unbelievable, they are made more convincing with the help of first rate regulars and guest stars. Episode Six (“Daffodil”) features the trifecta of Judith Ivey, Blythe Danner, and Swoosie Kurtz, while Eli Wallach is moving as the dying man in “Chicken Soup.” Most moving is Tomorrow Montgomery as a girl who balances fourth grade with caring for her Lupus-ridden mother. Nurse Jackie offers both gripping drama and outrageous comedy. Fans of Carmela Soprano may tune in at first to see Falco, but they’ll want to spend more time with Nurse Jackie Peyton.

RATING 9 / 10