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Reviewed by Will Harris
he most surprising thing about “Nurse Jackie” is not that it places its focus on a character that makes it very hard for you to like her. It’s that it’s given one of the lead actors from “The Sopranos” a part that makes you forget about the role that made her into a household name – well, y’know, in the households that can afford HBO, anyway. Now, in fairness, Edie Falco was probably already relatively familiar to HBO subscribers after the time she spent on “Oz,” but let’s face it: as Carmela Soprano, Falco’s recognizability quotient skyrocketed far above where it was when she was playing prison officer Diane Wittlesey. It also provided her with the opportunity to pick and choose her projects, and she deserves considerable praise for diving straight into another dark-toned series.
Jackie Peyton (Falco) is a nurse in a New York City hospital, and she does not suffer fools gladly, not even the ones who are doctors, nursing students, or, God forbid, hospital administrators. It is unfortunate, then, that she must endure all of these species on a daily basis. When the series kicks off, Jackie’s just being introduced to Dr. Fitch Cooper (Peter Facinelli), the latest addition to the E.R. You can call him “Coop,” he assures everyone, but Jackie’s not having any of it; she dislikes him immediately, and she has no intentions of being any more familiar than is absolutely necessary. There’s really only one physician in the hospital with whom Jackie has what you’d call a proper friendship, and that’s Dr. Elenor O'Hara (Eve Best). The two of them get along swimmingly despite their differences in status. Not so for Jackie and the new nursing student, Zoe (Merritt Wever), who’s so goddamned perky that you’ll either want to hug her or throttle her. Seriously, there’s no middle ground whatsoever. At the very least, though, Jackie probably likes Zoe better than Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith), who – as the administrator of the hospital – might as well be twirling a mustache, so evil is she.
Here’s the thing about Jackie, though: she lives two lives, and neither of them know any more about the other than they absolutely must. At the hospital, no one knows anything about her personal life except for the aforementioned Elenor, who knows pretty much everything. This includes the fact that Jackie is schtupping the hospital’s resident pharmacist, Eddie (Paul Schulze), as well as the fact that, when she goes home at night, it’s to a wonderful husband and two beautiful daughters. It should also be noted that Eddie doesn’t know that Jackie’s married with children, either. Yeah, she’s pretty good about playing things close to the vest, our Jackie, which is how she’s also able to conceal the fact that she’s a raging drug addict. Eddie’s providing her with free pharmaceuticals, and they’ve become a crutch that she needs to make it through the day. God forbid he should ever be replaced with a computerized dispenser.
The promotion for “Nurse Jackie” hasn’t really offered a good idea about what to expect from the series. Each episode is a half-hour long, filled with a mixture of dark humor (in the pilot, Jackie flushes a man’s ear down the toilet) and drama (in a later episode, one of Jackie’s former colleagues comes back to the hospital and asks her friends to assist her in dying rather than wasting away to cancer) that isn’t hinted at nearly enough in the advertisements for the show. It’s also full of some great comedic performances, including Facinelli, who instantly makes you aware of how much he’s being wasted in the “Twilight” films, and Wever, who’s so note-perfect with her performance of the sweet-enough-to-give-you-diabetes Zoe that she deserves an Emmy nomination.
Appropriately, though, it’s Falco who drives the show. Few other actresses could make a character with as many moral flaws as Jackie into someone who you still perceive as likable, more or less. There’s no question that Jackie loves her children and her husband and Eddie, too, and while you never really get a definitive answer for why she ever would’ve ventured into this relationship outside of her marriage, one can presume that it’s connected to her reasons for keeping so incredibly mum about her personal life to her colleagues at the hospital. The series continues to delve into Jackie’s family, however, and as things grow progressively more tense at home with her oldest daughter’s descent into anxiety, it becomes obvious that her worlds are going to collide sooner than later.
Like any addict, you want to smack Jackie around for continuing to take drugs the way she does, knowing that it’s only going to come to ill, but – and I know this sounds bad, but please take it in the spirit in which it’s intended – for the sake of the series, I hope her addiction lingers for several seasons to come. Or if it doesn’t, then maybe we can see Jackie hit rock bottom and climb her way back up. Either way, just give us more “Nurse Jackie,” as it’s the best and most enthralling half-hour series to hit Showtime since “Californication.”
Special Features: For a Season One set, this is a pretty solid showing of bonus material. There are a couple of commentaries with Falco and members of the crew, a trio of featurettes (“All About Edie,” “Unsung Heroes,” and “Prepping Nurse Jackie”), and a series of occasionally disconcerting stories from real-life nurses, some of which need to be heard to believed.