Nurse Jackie: "Game On"
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Nurse Jackie: "Game On"

Nurse Jackie is the most solidly grounded of Showtime's specialty line of series about women living dangerously, or at least weirdly. All these shows have terrific actresses at their center, and all of them work like saints to secure viewers' continued interest, even if, on the long-past-its-sell-by-date Weeds, the only way Mary-Louise Parker can really do that is by continuing to throw the camera looks that seem to say, "Look, just hang in there with us for another few weeks, and I promise that, sooner or later, I'll go to a bar in the middle of the day and screw some guy on the pool table." On United States of Tara, Toni Collette has it better than Parker has in a while, if only because she can always count on being part of a first-rate ensemble, given the degree to which she is her own supporting cast. Because these shows depend so much on having a charismatic actress to carry you over the rough patches, they can seem much more like star vehicles than Jackie, where the setting and plotting are believable enough and the writing and acting are generally solid enough that Edie Falco has the luxury of just playing this character she's built up over the course of two seasons. 

If that sounds anything like a backhanded compliment, it isn't meant to be. In the fourteen years since her first regular series role in Oz, Falco has established herself as likely the best actress on television, and the thrill of watching her play a lively, multidimensional character in a show that allows for a lot of give and take between her and the other actors hasn't started to thin out. Falco's matter-of-factness has always been part of the fun of watching her in roles like Carnela Soprano and Oz's wild-at-heart prison guard, and as Jackie, she uses it to make the character's compulsive lying and chasing after pills seem like the actions of a misfiring but essentially practical mind, which makes her behavior that much funnier. With its urban workplace setting and life-in-the-trenches attitude, its mixture of grit and comedy, and its appreciation of both the warmth provided by family and friends and the liberating effects of disreputable activity, Nurse Jackie often has the feel of something from the 1970s, like Barney Miller. But since it's a contemporary show on a pay-cable channel, Barney is pistol-whipping suspects while Wojo is loudly screwing hookers in the bathroom. I'm not sure that sounds like any kind of compliment at all, but I can live with it.

Jackie's previous season built up to the point where it looked as if Jackie's pattern of deceitful and self-destructive behavior would have to start providing diminishing returns for the viewer, at which point the writers had the sense to cram a stick of dynamite into the works, by having Jackie's best friend, Dr. O'Hara (Eve Best) and working-class doll-face of a husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) discover her perfidy and the depths of her drug addiction and confront her at home. The episode ended with Jackie opting for defiance and denial instead of hanging her head and shuffling off to rehab and regular counseling sessions with Andre Braugher. 

Tonight's episode, which picked up at the precise moment where the last season left off, managed to be the opposite of one of those season premieres that consist of watching the writers gingerly back out of the corner into which they'd painted themselves. Kevin barged into the hospital identifying himself to one and all as Jackie's husband, thus exploding the other big lie that Jackie, a practiced master at strategically deploying and hiding her wedding ring, had been maintaining at work. It was made clear that Jackie's "explanations" didn't do a thing for either O'Hara, who seemed ready to toss the last shovelfuls of dirt on their friendship, or for Kevin, which was a shame, because she seemed to have more than enough self-delusion for three. The final scene, with Jackie bravely declining to help herself to a Percocet that someone had dropped at a softball game, seemed to suggest that she's come to the conclusion that she has to change her ways but thinks that she can do it without help or any acknowledgment of past misdeeds, through sheer will. She also seemed to think that her marriage was doing okay, even though Kevin, down on the playing field, could be seen looking at her head as if he were thinking that he was swinging his bat at the wrong spherical object.

I get the sense that Nurse Jackie is an under-appreciated show, and since it's widely seen as the Edie Falco show, that means that its supporting cast must be under-appreciated as all the bedamned. Merritt Wever continues to be an airborne wonder as Zoey, never more amazing than when she decides to temper her usual state of unrestrained enthusiasm and tries to adopt Jackie's expression of jaded suspiciousness, which looks as natural on her face as a Magritte apple floating in front of her head. Anna Deavere Smith's shifts of expression as the bureaucratic gorgon grow ever teensier, even as her character grows ever more mysteriously sympathetic, and Peter Facinelli's work as Dr. Cooper is remarkably subtle and nuanced, given that he's basically playing Ted Baxter in a lab coat. Of course, I still miss Mo-Mo. Let's stipulate that if I'm ever talking about this show and don't actually say that I miss Mo-Mo, it's because I think it's understood.

When Nurse Jackie premiered two years ago, there were complaints about the casting of Paul Schulze as Eddie the lovesick pharmacist, because many years and scalp treatments ago, he had played Father Phil on The Sopranos, and, according to the complainers, it was confusing to see him and Edie Falco together again when he didn't seem to hardly be playing Father Phil at all. This is the kind of thing that causes intelligent, hard-working people to go on shooting sprees, and I'd just like to take a moment to thank Schulze for not killing anyone and instead hanging in there and playing a character who bears no resemblance to Father Phil by the simple trick of acting as if he were someone else. Whether this has solved things for the complainers or just made them even more confused, I cannot say.  

Stray observations:

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