Showtime’s Nurse Jackie – A Lesson in Good Character

August 24, 2009

Sex and the City inspired my wardrobe and influenced my choice of libation for much of my 20s and on into my 30s.  For two weeks after Six Feet Under and The Sopranos went off the air, I wore black and carried a hanky.  And true enough, it wasn’t Sunday…it was HBO.  All the while, Showtime is carrying on in the 300-channel-block of my DishNetwork, but other than a season of The LWord, and a few episodes of Weeds, nothing really maintained my interest like those HBO shows mentioned… until Nurse Jackie

Nurse Jackie is a 30-minute dark comedy set in an ER ensconced in the chaos of New York City.  Yeah yeah same show different city, right?  Wrong.  This isn’t a comedy spin-off of ER or House or Grey’s Anatomy or Scrubs or the countless other shows that fall under the hospital genre.  This one is different, as I’ll try to explain.

If the show was relying on the shock-and-awe that comes with an ER  milieu it would have failed before it left the starting gate.  We’re all familiar with the horror of the ER and frankly, we’ve become desensitized. Yes, as a cable show, Showtime has a creative license to make it raunchier than the networks, but raunchy as a “wow factor” was played out in the 90s.  So what’s left? 

Nurse Jackie’s co-creators Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem “went Broadway on their asses” and “doubled-down” on the writing.  For those of you non-writers that read this blog, that means just like the making of a great stage play, they bet on their ability to create superior storylines and interesting characters, versus having a budget that allows for the “blowing up of things”.

It’s still a little early to call, but it looks like the ball is headed out of the park with Nurse Jackie.  It has the same successful formula as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under – where the mob and the mortuary were just the common denominators that interconnected wonderful characters. When meat grinders and rigor mortis become tertiary, that’s a good thing. It’s not the setting, it’s not the premise, it’s not the hunk or the hottie, it is the creation of good characters.  Aristotle told us this over 2,000 years ago.  You take great characters and place them in a line of action with an equal and opposite line of counter action and…BAM!!! You’ve got entertainment.    Producers sometimes have a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality.  Screw that. Give us great characters and fabulous storylines and we will stay and take over your guestroom. [For LitCentral’s software system that ties all these development ingredients together – stay tuned.]

BTW…Can you tell I’m trying to quail my excitement at this point?  I mean this show is like one of those Christmas gifts that I already know what I’m getting, and I’m so stoked as I’m ripping off the paper because I really really really want it, but I’m hesitant to burst into song just in case it turns out to be the wrong color.  When producers respect writers in a way that has nothing to do with EGO and everything to do with the creative process, the result is a gift to all – including the audience.  I have yet to read one article about Nurse Jackie (sans IMDB for credit info) and yet I know beyond a shadow of a doubt this is the direction Nurse Jackie’s producers had to have taken. They kept their hands off and let writers do what they do best.  Kudos to the executives and the writers: Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem, Evan Dunsk, Rick Cleveland. 

With Nurse Jackie I don’t feel like the writers are holding back.  They take the characters to the edge, kick them over, and then sit down and record their observations.  The result is not only funny but offers a truthfulness and sincerity that’s almost tangible.  Every single scene has you wide-eyed with wonder.  In features, you plant a few setups and make sure to connect all the dots by act three.  With Nurse Jackie every freaking scene is a setup! Nothing is as it seems and yet it’s all so real and down to earth.  But let’s not forget, good writing means nothing if you don’t have great characters and great characters are born of great actors. Or is it the other way around? 

The Cast

There’s a synergy going on at the Nurse Jackie set between the actors and writers and it’s permeating the TV.  They’ve crossed into that zone that only athletes are privy to – that place where everything you do is SO ON, so right!  What’s the barometer for this zone?  When fans like myself start questioning certain performances with, “Was that scripted or impromptu?”

The first time I saw Haaz Sleiman was back in 2007 in an indie called The Visitor. (It’s a good movie BTW, with solid character development.) Today he is rockin’ the role of Mohammed ‘Mo-Mo” De La Cruz – the hottie nurse who happens to be gay.  He’s Jackie’s confidant but has no clue.

Merritt Wever’s character Zoey took a couple of episodes to grow on me.  When she first came onto the scene I crossed my arms (body language) and immediately applied the term “boring”.   NOW, I think she’s the second coming. Wever was not cast into a starlit role.  There’s nothing “wow” about Zoey’s character, her appearance, her circumstance, nothing… They essentially said, you get the role of Knox gelatin kid…make the most of it.  Wever caught the punt on the 100-yard line and ran it all the way back for a touchdown!  I swear, her nuances and subtleties are what comprise great acting.  The fact that she pulls it off slightly overweight and with very little makeup is the finger straight up to stereotypes.

Eve Best plays the British doctor O’Hara.  She’s dressed to the nines on the outside but broken on the inside.  She has revealed very little of her dark side which only leaves us SCREAMING for more!

Peter Facinelli’s character Dr. Fitch Cooper is similar in appearance to NBC’s ER Noah Wyle’s character Dr. Carter, but far more interesting. Imagine having to explain a tourette syndrome quirk that reacts to anxiety by grabbing a woman’s breast!  Hey Facinelli, how did rehearsals go with that?

Anna Deaver Smith as Hospital Administrator Gloria Akalitus is casting at its best.   It’s not only her physical features (very tall, very pedantic looking) but Smith tweaks this character just enough so that she stays off-kilter.  The result is comical but in no way is this Akalitus’ intention.  

I haven’t even mentioned Eddie Falco and somehow I think her ego can take it.  Let’s face it, she’s (insert expletive) brilliant.  She had me at Sopranos.  Her character Jackie, has so many different layers that you’re left feeling like half shrink half fan by show’s end.  How can I better describe…. Jackie is like that furry little kitten that purrs and rubs up against you so lovingly, but when you reach down to pet it, it tries to scratch your eyes out.  She’s a sweet, mouth-watering peace of cake with habanero icing.  You wouldn’t want to eat it, but you’d love to watch somebody try.

Nurse Jackie is on episode #11 (Showtime Mondays @ 10:30 PM) with the season finale scheduled for tonight.  BUT DON’T TUNE IN NOW, for crying out loud!  Go into your Showtime On Demand and start with episode #1 or wait for Season One to come out on NetFlix.  I can hear you yelling at me – “You’ve got my taste buds all set  to try this show only to reveal the final episode of the season is tonight!”  I know and I’m sorry, but it’s like watching a good fight – you don’t turn your head to go alert anyone lest you miss a second of the action!  My advice – catch up the best way you can and book your seat on the couch for next season.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

BrianXL August 25, 2009 at 11:03 am

Great show. Great article.


Mary Martini August 26, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Have heard great things about this show. Your article was fantastic. It makes me want to watch the whole series today, so I can meet these great characters.


Robin August 26, 2009 at 1:04 pm

BrianXL – Thanks for the kudos.

Mary Martini – The full series is about six hours. My advice is to pick a lazy Saturday, stay in your jammies and indulge… The only regret you’ll have is the hunger you’ll feel when it ends.


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