Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Nurse Jackie" provides a heroine both sainted and tainted

Does anyone play denial better than Edie Falco? For all those years on "The Sopranos," on which she played mafia wife Carmela Soprano, she gave us a woman who constantly suppressed her knowledge of her husband's criminal activities (and her complicity in same). With her tight-lipped smile, set jaw and studiedly calm eyes, Falco's Carmela was a woman who tucked her misgivings and guilt about her life into a place deep inside.
On Showtime's excellent new dramedy "Nurse Jackie," which premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday, Falco takes another character whose survival hinges on keeping certain secrets. This time, she's nurse Jackie Peyton, a smart, compassionate, resourceful voice of reason in a hospital where most of the other employees are either hopelessly callous or eye-rollingly goofy. She offers not just care, but sympathy (and, if needed, a firm dressing down). Jackie is undeniably good at her job. She's also incredibly flawed. The first time we see her, she's laid out on the bathroom floor, preparing to snort painkillers to ease her aching back. Jackie tells herself, and us, that this is necessary ("What do you call a nurse with a bad back?" Jackie asks in a voiceover. "Unemployed! Ba-dum-bump!").
In addition to her drug use, Jackie is guilty of other sins. Though other critics have disclosed these, I won't. But, suffice it to say, her life requires a lot of juggling and secrecy. And hypocrisy. Jackie doesn't bat an eye when admonishing a patient for her prescription drug addiction.
Carmela Soprano might not have liked Jackie's short hairdo or ragged nails, but she probably would have related to her plight. So do we. Unlike a lot of TV anti-heroes and anti-heroines, Jackie seems fundamentally good. She does help a lot of people through her work, and offers mostly good, sane advice to her co-workers. She has a good heart, even though she lies, abuses drugs, and flushes the occasional ear down the toilet (don't ask).
In fact, I like "Nurse Jackie" the show mainly because I like Nurse Jackie the character. We might not always agree with what she does. But we understand her. And we know, in many cases, the good balances out the bad. In many ways, she reminded me of a sweeter version of Tommy Gavin, the angry firefighter played by Denis Leary on "Rescue Me." Both have substance abuse problems and difficulty with relationships, but are hyper-competent on the job. And they both have dark, nasty senses of humor. However, I'd never want to hang out with Tommy Gavin. I could probably do lunch with Nurse Jackie.
Falco, of course, is a perfect fit for the part. She gives Jackie the appropriate gravitas and a nice deadpan wit, and her expressive face is perfect for a character who does most of her talking with her eyes.
The rest of the characters, however, are hit or miss. Eve Best is properly aloof as Jackie's glamorous and sardonic doctor buddy, and Merrit Wever is adorable as a naive (but surprisingly perceptive) nursing student. And it's fun to see Paul Schulze, who played Father Phil on "The Sopranos," as a pharmacist with whom Jackie has a special relationship. But I'm not quite sure how I feel about Peter Facinelli, who plays obnoxious frat-boy Dr. Fitch "Coop" Cooper. His bombast masks his insecurity about his abilities as a doctor (and about his various personal problems, about which we learn slowly). Facinelli doesn't quite have the depth as an actor to play this complicated character. However, he can be very funny at times, particularly when geeking out about the hospital getting a new, automated pill dispenser. I have hopes that Facinelli will grow into the role.
At least he's given a character to work with. Poor Anna Deavere Smith, as a stern hospital administrator, has little to do other than hover and look imperious. Smith is a good actress, capable of much more. Let's hope the script provides her with meatier material.
Overall, though, this is Falco's show and, as such, it's worth watching. Her Jackie is someone you can enjoy spending a half hour a week with.
"Nurse Jackie" premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday. The first episode is also available to view online. Click here to watch.

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