Nurse Jackie: “Kettle Kettle Black Black”
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Nurse Jackie: “Kettle Kettle Black Black”

 Looking at certain famously decadent rock stars who are on the wrong side of middle age, it's possible to wonder if the secret to good hair late in life is a history of heroin use. (Though apparently you have to rock a little harder than James Taylor.) It may be an ominous sign that, at the start of Nurse Jackie's fourth season, Edie Falco's hair has never looked better. It's not carefully styled and meticulously coiffed. It's rather scraggly, but in an appealing way that sets off her face and leaves her features less exposed than the short, suitable-for-work cut she still sports in the opening credits. Falco's face looks longer now, and that's an asset in the first episodes of the new season, because she spends a lot of time silently reacting to outrageous and upsetting things, letting her jaw go slack while her lips tighten, to make sure that whatever she's thinking doesn't make its way into the conversation, and her eyes widen and shift around, trying to find something safe to use as a focus point. She's taken on a Pierrot-like quality, like Giulietta Masina in La Strada.

Each of the show's previous seasons has begun with Jackie seemingly approaching crisis point—addicted to drugs, involved in a secret adulterous relationship, lying to everybody—and then spent a dozen weeks showing how adept she is at postponing the day of reckoning, spinning and kicking and managing to keep her nose just above the water line. The new season is looking to shake things up by starting with her personal doomsday and going from there. In the third season finale, Jackie, who'd had a long-standing, off-and-on affair with Eddie (Paul Schulze), the hospital pharmacist who used to slip her meds, found out that her sweet, solid, and clueless husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) had slept with somebody else and ordered him out of the house. (She found out because Kevin, who never suspected that she might have cheated on him, told her about it, an action for which "clueless" might be too mild a term.) When the season premiere begins, Kevin is waiting out the storm in his own apartment, and their two daughters are often spending the night there, which means Jackie is often on her own. This works out even worse than you might expect.

The episode actually begins with Jackie checking into rehab. After she receives the introduction speech from her chief counselor (Laura Silverman), the title "24 HOURS EARLIER" flashes onscreen, spicing things up with an over-familiar device that's the least fresh thing about the episode. It turns out that Jackie was praying at a church when she got picked up by a crackhead (played by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong) who subsequently expired on her floor. This would be an unnerving turn of events for almost anyone, but when it happens to Jackie, the most unnerving thing about it may be the efficient way she handles it, almost as if she'd already prepared a checklist in her head for this likely eventuality, She calls her doctor pal O'Hara (Eve Best) and has her come over so she can help make sure that the fellow's passage into the bureaucracy of the dead goes smoothly and quietly. ("Don't judge," Jackie tells O'Hara. "Okay," says O'Hara, looking at the corpse at her feet, "this begs judgment.") After O'Hara shoots down the idea of seeing if the body will fit inside her town car, Jackie then calls the ambulance driver Lenny (Lenny Jacobson) and gets him and his girlfriend, the enthusiastic nurse Zoey (Merritt Wever), out of bed by telling them that she has a pick-up at her place: Some poor bastard keeled over on the street when she happened to be watching him through the window, probably a heart attack. "Keep the sirens off," she says. "There's kids sleeping around here."

That's a wake-up call for your ass, but it's not the only rocky patch in her day. All Saints' Hospital is now the property of a company called Quantum Bay, which has brought in a troubleshooter named Mike Cruz (played by Bobby Canavale) to do the inevitable reorganizing, downsizing, and assorted terrorizing of the staff. One of Canavale's first steps in inaugurating his reign of terror is to inform Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) that his presence renders her job "redundant," although rather than kick her to the curb and shred her pension, he's graciously willing to permit her to put on a pair of scrubs and join the working stiffs on the floor. Akalitus' loss of status and dignity might be Anna Deveare Smith's gain. The character seemed to have lost her mind for long stretches of the third season, but anger over what's being done to her restores some of the old flintiness, and she's never more terrifying than when she marches to the nurses' station and tells her frightened former subordinates that they're now on an equal footing, no need to give her any special treatment. O'Hara, too, is going through a big life change. She's pregnant. No word yet on who the father is, but the scene in which the lovably asinine Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) explains that it almost could have been him but isn't is both a comic high point and a mild disappointment; I had my hopes, but maybe there isn't really enough liquor in all of New York. (For his part, Coop, who got left at the altar in the previous season finale, looks to have built an extension on his premature midlife crisis. He's taken to shambling around the hospital in a Bob Seger T-shirt and an alternate-Star-Trek-universe goatee.)

The big news on the home front is that, unbeknownst to Jackie, Eddie has gone rogue and told his bro Kevin about their affair, in order to take the burden of guilt off Kevin's shoulders, and also maybe to end his own romantic torment by arranging to have himself mercifully beaten to death. (Eddie, having "waited a respectable amount of time," has confronted Jackie about their chances of a future together, and been blown off. "Were you sleeping with me just for my drugs?" he asks. "I'm not even going to dignify that," says Jackie. "Dignify it!" says Eddie.) After an initial burst of excitement along the lines of, "Yay, Edie Falco's back," Nurse Jackie has settled into a dependably recurring but little-noticed and, I think, underrated show. It's down to 10 episodes this year, and, with The Big C—the other half of Showtime's "nice actresses behaving erratically" comedy-drama block—is being shifted to Sunday nights to fill part of the hole left by the season finales of Shameless, Californication, and House Of Lies

Mentioning Nurse Jackie in the same breath as those shows makes it seem more anomalous than ever. The trend with these shows is to wink at squalid behavior (as in the "let's go to the zoo and laugh at the animals" attitude of Shameless) or glamorize it. Jackie tells herself that she needs to take drugs and use the people around her badly as part of the release valve she needs because of the pressure of her job, and though that's a rationalization, she is at least good at a job that's worth doing. (The only way that would be true of anyone on the other Showtime series would be if Californication's Hank Moody is really meant to be a good writer, an idea that, if it were true, would be almost too sad to consider.) Nurse Jackie wrings comedy out of Jackie's behavior, but it can't treat it too glibly, partly because she's a mother whose acting out has consequences for her relationship with her children. She is, as Laura Silverman sums her up next week, a great nurse and a terrible human being. "You're accountable now," Silverman tells her when she arrives at the clinic, which will make for a change. There's no telling what accountability will do for Jackie, but signs are promising that it'll be good for the show.

Stray observations:

  • Not much going on in the medical drama department, but I do love the moment when an emergency patient's worried girlfriend introduces herself by saying, "I'm a dog groomer," and points at the cartoon animals decorating her scrubs, as if she were flashing her FBI badge. Her scrubs earn her a compliment from Zoey, who has pictures of bunnies on hers.  Zoey also gets to walk into Jackie's apartment in the dead of night and sing out, "We're here!" in a tone of voice appropriate for announcing the delivery of the ice cream cake at a children's party, even though she's there on corpse retrieval duty. I don't care what religion you are or if you have none: Merrit Wever was sent to us by a kind and loving God.

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