Nurse Jackie: “Happy Fucking Birthday”
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Nurse Jackie: “Happy Fucking Birthday”

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Nurse Jackie

“Happy Fucking Birthday”

Season 5, Episode 1

The fifth season premiere of Nurse Jackie opens with Jackie, who was dismissed from her job at All Saints Hospital at the end of last season, preparing to go to her job at All Saints Hospital. When she gets there, her friend Gloria Akalitus, who was demoted from her position as chief administrator at the start of the fourth season, and was eventually dismissed from service entirely for her role in covering up Jackie’s transgressions, is roaming the halls and barking out orders, just the way she used to.

It turns out that she’s chief administrator again, though no explanation is offered for how this remarkable turn of events has come to pass. Dr. Cruz, the cost-cutting bureaucrat who replaced her, and ultimately fired her, has disappeared, and there’s no explanation for that, either; his name is only invoked when somebody wants to stress how overworked everyone is. (“I almost miss Dr. Cruz,” someone will say, and then, after everyone recoils in horror, adds that this in reference only to his usefulness as a competent doctor. The interns probably whisper among themselves that, if you go into the bathroom and say Dr. Cruz’s name while facing the mirror with the lights out, the boogeyman will instantly appear, with a list of proposed budget cuts in his hook hand.)

When Cruz was still around and cleaning house, he also fired Eddie, the pharmacist, who Jackie used to sleep with so she could more easily tap into his chemical wonderland. When the good fairy was in New York giving people their jobs back, she somehow skipped Eddie, but that’s okay. For some reason, he pops into the hospital, happens to notice that the pharmacy is in chaos, and decides to help out—by injecting more chaos into the mix, but it’s the right kind of chaos. Nobody can get the drugs they need because the automated system isn’t working properly, so Eddie grabs a fire extinguisher, smashes up the joint, and starts dispensing pills as if they were candy and he were Willy Wonka. His explanation for this is that, since he doesn’t work there, they can’t very well fire him. You might think that is more along the lines of a tasering-and-handcuffing offense, but when Akalitus confronts him, she tells him, “You’re not even an employee. That’s why I have no choice but to—“ broad smile—“hire you back!” Dopey, bouncy music is cued up, to lend the proper celebratory air to this moment of getting the band back together.

For most of its run, Nurse Jackie has had the special distinction of being the most underrated series on Showtime, a cable channel that has lagged so far behind HBO in the area of original programming that anything it produced that was halfway watchable was more likely to be overrated. When the show was among last year’s Emmy nominations, a number of snarky commentators pointed to this as definitive proof of how out of touch the Emmys are. But the show had just put out its best season ever; by blowing up Jackie’s work life, her home life (her husband discovered her infidelities and moved out), and forcing her off drugs and into rehab, it daringly reinvented itself as a show about the rewards and costs of personal responsibility, as experienced by someone who had a self-bestowed Ph.D in avoiding them.

In the process, it reaffirmed its view of Jackie as a hero, but also someone who wasn’t always sympathetic or even especially likable. In a moment as brave as anything Edie Falco ever did as Carmela Soprano, Jackie, who liked playing domestic martyr and telling people that she started taking pills so she could work extra shifts and put some bread on the table, admitted that she really did it because her oldest daughter Grace, ever since she’d been a crying baby, drove her crazy. That season was a triumph for everyone working on the show, especially Falco and co-creator and showrunner Liz Brixius, and it wouldn’t have been a bad place for the series to end.

But once the season ended, Brixius signed a developed deal with Universal TV and left the show, which is now in the hands of Clyde Phillips, who’s probably best known for his work on Dexter. He inherited an established show that was also a potential blank slate; after the end of last season, there were infinite possibilities, endless new directions in which he could have taken it. Instead, he just hit the reset button. Some things he couldn’t change back: Jackie is still clean, and still tempted to fall off the wagon. She and Kevin are still broken up, and still negotiating the terms of their split, and his attempts to get at her through the legal battle for custody of their daughters promises to complete his transformation from a likable, sympathetic (and wronged) character into a straight-up villain. (It’s as if he and Andy  Bernard took the same online course.)

Kevin grows more unreasonable with every appearance, so that the show can twist the viewers' heartstrings over the threat that Jackie will be separated from her kids. (Grace gets the biggest laugh of the episode, when she comes downstairs for school looking as if she'd been up late getting a makeover from Lindsay Lohan, wearing so much black eyeliner that she could pass for a Robert Motherwell painting. "What's with the makeup?" Kevin asks. She replies, "It's Picture Day.") Other changes are even less welcome. Jackie’s best friend, Dr. O’Hara, announces that she’s quitting, so she can return to England and concentrate on raising her baby. Eve Best has made O’Hara an excellent foil to Falco’s Jackie, and has always been a rock even when this show was on unsteady legs. It’s easy to sympathize with whatever made her look at the non-direction the show is heading in and made her think, “I’m outta here.” But she will be seriously missed.

To supplement the work force, there are two new characters, both of them from the “Yo, we’re so edgy!” Showtime playbook. Betty Gilpin plays Dr. Roman, a new doctor of dubious competence who gets a pass from the men around her because her mean-girl beauty makes them weak in the knees. It would be easier to explain the conception of the character as a joke on the male characters’ sexism if she weren’t given a classic Showtime introduction scene, vigorously riding a man in a hospital bed as if he were a bucking bronco. (Then Jackie comes in, calling her name, and the editing at first makes it seem as if “Dr. Roman” is the man underneath her. The fact that Jackie interrupts them while they’re having sex is the first joke. The fact that it’s the hot, horny, babe, not the dude, who has the medical degree is—har-dee-har-har—the second joke.)

Morris Chestnut is the new chief of the ER, a former army medic who shows up for his first day fresh from dry-walling his basement, so that everyone will be able to mistake him for a homeless man who’s wandered in off the street. He lectures Jackie on her accidental racism, telling her, “Don’t beat yourself up about it, just hop down off the that soapbox.” He seems like a smart enough guy to know that, according to the traditional meaning of that phrase, it would be the person instructing others about not making superficial assumptions based on appearance who’s up on a soapbox, but whoever put that line in the script probably seems deceptively smart in person himself.

Chestnut does a solid job with his hopeless role. Everybody does, and Merritt Wever, still hanging in there as the eternal good-hearted naïf Zoey, remains one of our country’s greatest under-utilized resources. (It’s not her fault that seeing her onNew Girl last week, calling Schmidt on his bullshit and compelling him to work his way back into her good graces by consuming mass quantities of pizza, just made her undeveloping role here seem more played out than ever.) But the high level of on-screen talent can’t disguise the fact that Nurse Jackie, which seemed poised to take a chance on reinventing itself, has instead settled for trying to reanimate the discarded husk of the show it had grown out of. 

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