"We are both in recovery, and very importantly we think addiction
is hilarious and fun to explore."
-- Linda Wallem, alongside fellow writer/executive producer Liz Brixius
How is it possible that I love Nurse Jackie the series so much when I loathe Nurse Jackie the character so much? Okay, "loathe" might be a strong word, but there's a lot I don't like about her. Sure, she cares about her kids and doesn't want her patients to die, but the good traits pretty much end there. Her problems (and trust me, there are plenty) build to one heck of an emotional season finale, where things aren't looking so good for a few characters. I can't wait to find out what happens next, but I also have to admit I kind of enjoy seeing Jackie in torment (because, let's face it, she sort of deserves it). And in one particularly painful scene where she sinks to a new low ("Hammer time!"), I couldn't help but smile. Does that make me a bad person? Hey, you brought this on yourself, Jacks! Don't blame me.
Deep down, I do care about her. And all I can say is "Bravo!" to Edie Falco and the writers, who have concocted one heck of an odd, original series. In the bonus features, actor Peter Facinelli had this to say: "I've kind of come in thinking scenes were dramatic and they end up being more comical, and I've kind of come in thinking scenes were more comical and they end up more dramatic." That sums up the show's tone perfectly, and I can't think of another series that has pulled off this unique blend so well. Nurse Jackie has also given me the biggest about-face I've ever had: I didn't like it at all after the first episode, and figured I was in for a long weekend of watching some pretty annoying characters. But as you get to know these people better and get used to the show's rhythm, it's almost impossible to stop watching. It's sort of like Scrubs on speed, with maybe a little of Pushing Daisies' mirth and color and Dead Like Me's cynicism and gloom thrown in.
Like its characters, the show is slightly off-kilter--a whimsical and colorful acid trip shot with an appropriately stylish visual flair. Stern and often gruff, Jackie Peyton is intimidating if you don't know her: "I don't like chatty...I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people." She could be described as a vigilante, a saint, a sinner...roles she embodies as an E.R. nurse at All-Saints Hospital in Manhattan alongside a colorful cast of characters. There's young hotshot doc Fitch "Coop" Cooper (Facinelli), an enthusiastic frat boy with some douchebag tendencies; Englishwoman Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best), a surgeon in stilettos who strikes fear in the staff and is also Jackie's closest friend; Zoey Barkow (Merritt Wever), the quiet yet eager first-year nurse placed under Jackie's wing; emergency room administrator Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith), a stern taskmaster, stickler for the rules and overall killjoy; fellow nurse Mohammed "Mo-Mo" De La Cruz (Haaz Sleiman), who likes to gossip with Jackie when he isn't avoiding the romantic advances of fellow homosexual Thor (Stephen Wallem).
Then there's pharmacist Eddie Walzer (fellow Sopranos vet Paul Schulze), who may soon be out of a job thanks to a fancy new pill-popping machine. That may get in the way of his daily sexual escapades with Jackie, who gladly steals pain killers with his help in an effort to lessen her back pain. She snorts up Percocet and Valium multiple times a day in an effort to keep her sanity, and no place is off limits (including the hospital's chapel). Did I mention that Jackie has a loving husband and two cute-as-a-button daughters at home, all of them unaware of her extracurricular activities? Try as hard as you might, you won't find anything wrong with Kevin Peyton (Dominic Fumusa), a devoted father, husband and bar owner who's attracted to his wife. He's more of a mother to daughters Fiona (Daisy Tahan) and Grace (Ruby Jerins), whose dreary demeanor starts to alarm those around her (listen to Kevin's half-joking reference to a hysterical show she watched).
Are you starting to turn a bit on our protagonist, who takes off her wedding ring every day she goes to work? What if I told you she has no qualms about stealing money from recently deceased patients--or forging their signatures to make sure their organs don't go to waste? Or that she isn't afraid to dole out punishment to "bad" patients? Or that she has miraculously kept her home life a secret to almost all of her co-workers, who have no idea she has a husband and kids? There isn't a lie she's afraid to tell, and I haven't shared some of the more jaw-dropping steps she takes this season. Yep, Jackie has a lot of explaining to do, but the series thankfully isn't in any rush. The show doesn't glorify Jackie or give her an easy out (if the writers ever try to make things easy on themselves by turning Kevin into an ass, I'll never forgive them; it's much more interesting this way).
But be warned--the show takes some warming up, and a sick sense of humor won't hurt. And if you can make it past the pilot--where I wasn't quite convinced there was much good in these people--you're in for a healthy watch. Jackie--both the character and the series--is a beautiful disaster, a confused, chaotic mess that serves up equal doses of laughs, tears, tension, salaciousness and audacity. The show is sarcastic and offbeat yet still touching; it's pretty remarkable that a character this messed up and dislikable can keep you coming back. And it's worth it: The last minute of the season finale is pure hilarity. With one of the funniest shots and lines I've seen in a long time, it's a random exclamation point that fits Nurse Jackie like a latex glove.
This universe is slightly exaggerated and warped (Dr. O'Hara accurately observes "It's a fucking asylum!"). Many patients are just props, with plenty of silly afflictions thrown in to up the kookiness (like a man who's scrotal sac is repeatedly clawed by his cat, or a guy with spiders in his ears). And Mrs. Akalitus is a perpetual punching bag, shoved into thankless situations (like zapping herself with a tazer or getting caught in an elevator) as Smith's face contorts into near-cartoonish expressions. Her character is necessary, but I think she's overplayed just enough to drag the show down a little--I'd prefer E.R.'s Kerry Weaver check in and take over (c'mon, Laura Innes! Please?!). But Akalitus softens up toward the end of the season, and I have hope that the writers will reel her in just enough (she's one of the few areas where they need to turn down the laughing gas just a bit).
We also think we have Coop figured out, but the tool actually becomes a little lovable as the season progresses (watch for a cool side story involving his parents in Episode 6), and you might find yourself rooting for him in his constant battles with Jackie. Facinelli strikes just the right notes, and how can you resist his charm: "I just had the most awesome gunshot...guy's totally stabilized. Coop 1, Death 0! Booyah!" The writers also go a little too far with his quirks--particularly the self-diagnosed affliction that causes him to involuntarily grope women. "When I get nervous, I act out with inappropriate sexual touches," he says, hand on Jackie's breast. "It's like turrets...a neurological thing." When Jackie presses these unnecessary gags too far and goes for the obvious, it suffers from predictability. And it's pretty hard to buy that Jackie could get away with keeping her dual lives a secret--doesn't Kevin ever call or visit the hospital? Doesn't Jackie have an emergency contact? Don't her friends know her well enough to sense the truth?
But then it goes for your heart with surprising depth--my two favorite scenes showed different sides of three central characters. Jackie gives Coop a pep talk in Episode 2, resulting in a new understanding between the two; while an argument with Dr. O'Hara in Episode 9 finally shows us a human being inside the name-brand clothes (we get a lot closer to O'Hara in the final four episodes, and the fabulous Best proves she's more than a sassy accent). Both conversations magnify Jackie's selfish nature, which may be essential in allowing us to get closer to those around her.
The show has a lot of fun with Mo, and the charming Sleiman always puts a smile on my face. Through his conversations with Jackie, we start to learn more about his life at home--and a possibly troubled relationship, elements I hope get further exploration in the future. But my favorite character is the brainy bundle of nerves Zoey, an eager-to-please yet slightly shy and skittish whippersnapper who has to quickly acclimate herself to the crazy. Dressed in bright pink and full of cheer, she's a prime target for the jaded hospital to bring down--but damn it, she won't let them: "The fact that you have even the slightest inclination to help people puts you miles ahead of 100 percent of the population," a stern Jackie says with equal amounts of frustration and pride (one of the many reasons Falco is so damn good).
Wever gets the quietest character, and her nuanced performance may go unnoticed if you aren't paying attention (she gets the season's most poignant moment and line after experiencing her first death on the job). Zoey is the closest thing the hospital has to a "normal" person, and she serves as an excellent vehicle for us to experience everyone else. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and fears she doesn't have the mental makeup to withstand the job. Her caring nature and her nerves are endearing, but it's her own quirks that make Zoey the show's comedic weapon--the strong silent type that made me laugh louder than anyone else (her mission to retrieve a stolen stethoscope nearly had me in stitches). Watch and appreciate her every subtle (and often tortured) expression, listen to every quiet yet important utterance and laugh at her own surprising revelations.
As for Falco? Simply fantastic. I'd love to hear how she approaches the role. Jackie is barely keeping it together as this functioning addict, and it has to be one of the more challenging characters she's tackled (and probably the most fun to play). The opinionated nurse is strong, assured and detached when she's in her scrubs--but when she's by herself, the walls come crashing down as insecurities get the best of her. There's a vulnerable side she never shows at the hospital, and that gives the actress two goldmines to navigate. You can always see the stress and guilt on Jackie's face, which can't be easy for an actor. Falco doesn't feel the need to make things easy--and I get the sense the best is yet to come, at least with the more dramatic material and personal growth. In the meantime, enjoy her quick wit and comedic prowess, which is perfectly suited to the show's sensibilities. Fast, sharp and often sarcastic, this show demands that you keep up with it--a challenge Jackie is happy to tackle (nose first, of course...).
The 12 episodes from Season 1 are presented on 3 discs; all run about 27 minutes.
1. Pilot (aired 6/8/09) Longtime ER nurse Jackie Peyton bends the rules to bring some good from a patient's senseless death, while concealing her addiction to painkillers she gets from her boyfriend, the hospital pharmacist.
2. Sweet-N-All (aired 6/15/09) Jackie and Kevin are worried that their daughter Grace might have an anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, Jackie's Percocet-laced coffee gets into the wrong hands.
3. Chicken Soup (aired 6/22/09) Jackie meets a patient who uses his wife's chicken soup to treat his heart disease. Later, she talks to Dr. O'Hara about her daughter's anxiety and learns that a pill-dispensing machine will take Eddie's job.
4. School Nurse (aired 6-29-09) Jackie and Kevin think about sending their daughter Grace to a private school. Meanwhile, O'Hara can't escape a boy who wants to thank her.
5. Daffodil (aired 7/6/09) A 10-year-old girl needs Jackie's help. Mrs. Akalitus gets in the line of fire.
6. Tiny Bubbles (aired 7/13/09) Jackie meets an old friend and fellow nurse who suffers from terminal lung cancer. A gall bladder attack brings Dr. Cooper's mother to the hospital.
7. Steak Knife (aired 7/20/09) After the ex-husband of his date attacked him with a knife, a man is brought to the ER. Meanwhile, Mrs. Akalitus takes care of a foundling.
8. Pupil (aired 7/27/09) Jackie addresses a temp nurse's drug abuse. Mrs. Akalitus has baby fever.
9. Nose Bleed (aired 8/3/09) Jackie has to deal with the consequences of her drug abuse--and Zoey's criticism.
10. Ring Finger (aired 8/10/09) Jackie has to come up with drastic measures to keep Dr. Cooper from exposing her. Jackie seeks Dr. O'Hara's help.
11. Pill-O-Matix (aired 8/17/09) Jackie gets cut off her Percocet supply when Eddie is finally replaced. Zoey makes a mistake; Eddie makes a discovery.
12. Health Care and Cinema (aired 8/24/09) Kevin asks Jackie to meet for a rendezvous. Eddie gets too close for comfort and Dr. O'Hara faces an emotional arrival.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is decent, and fares better in the brighter hospital scenes where the blues and greens provide a needed boost of color. Many shots (including most of the nighttime scenes) are a lot darker, and copious grain is present throughout.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital EX track is excellent, with little details making themselves known throughout the season. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, and the soundtrack is handled well. A 2.0 option is also available, and subtitles come in English and Spanish.
"I don't necessarily need to completely understand everything about the way characters work, certainly not on an intellectual basis. But emotionally, I can find it." - Edie Falco
The solid collection of extras is spread across the three discs. Four audio commentaries are included (on episodes 1, 6, 10 and 12), with actor Edie Falco joined by writers/executive producers Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, along with executive producer Richie Jackson. The tracks aren't quite as fantastic as I was hoping, but are still fun listens that share a lot of interesting stories and behind-the-scenes stuff. It's nice to hear the gang laud Pilot director Allen Coulter, who was responsible for the cool close-up shots of the pills (director of photography Vanja Cernjul also gets rightfully praised for his work, which puts a nice stamp of style on the series). The writers talk about their battles to make Jackie more corrupt (who knew people would actually fight for Uggs?!). It's also great to hear Falco share her thoughts about the character, Still, there's some periods of silence in these tracks, and in the Pilot the executives don't even explain who they are.
All About Edie (5:22) has the cast and crew talking about the fabulousness of the star. "Most actors could not take the weight of all these things, and Edie? You can pile it all on," says Wallem. "She is a sniper when it comes to the truth, and it is thrilling to watch her." In addition to praising her honesty and the power of her stillness, the cast is equally enthusiastic about her comedic chops. "She has a great comedic timing; there's a dryness about her comedic talent," Facinelli says. "She's very funny in the show, as well as deeply moving. It's a good combination for her because she gets to show more. She makes my job easy--I go in and I just react off what she's doing. Every day I feel blessed to be here."
Up next, Unsung Heroes (5:27) has the same gang talking about the often underappreciated importance of nurses, a role they wanted to salute with the series. The idea of honor in the shadows, being a patient's advocate and a caregiver are all explored. This featurette gives us our first look at Eve Best (Dr. O'Hara) and technical consultant Lisa Wins-Huntzinger. A Showtime trailer is also included on the first disc.
On Disc 2, Prepping Nurse Jackie (10:51) is one of the more interesting features. "This is a show that crosses a lot of different boundaries, and it's a show unlike any other in the sense that the tone is very different," says Facinelli. "I think Edie said it best...she said 'If I came into a hospital and saw our little gang, I'd run.'" Jackie's unique relationship with Zoey is touched upon, and I was fascinated at the writers' take on the reaction many viewers have to Jackie. "It's funny...people are freaking out about this, but men have been doing it forever on television," Wallem says of Jackie's less-than-admirable traits. "Honestly, when people freak out I go, 'What? Is this 1974?' This is crazy!" Adds Brixius: "Is Jackie an addict? Yes...and she's a great nurse. Is she an addict? Yes...and she's a great wife and she's a great girlfriend and she's a great nurse. She's all of them." It's a great topic for debate, because while I love the show, I'd certainly disagree with Brixius on Jackie being a great wife, girlfriend and mother, at least to a degree (and for the record, I'd find a male character with the same habits equally offensive). But when a show can stir up this much passion and emotion on both sides of a controversial character, it's doing everything right--so I'll gladly disagree with her. "She's definitely an anti-hero," says Paul Schulze (Eddie). "She's not simple to root for."
You also get Nurse Stories, brief snippets of real-life nurses sharing some more memorable stories from the trenches (which seem to have inspired the show's writers). You get five clips: "A 2-Year-Old with Attitude" (1:35), "Big, Tall, Cheerful Blonde" (:55), "Love at First Boob" (1:04), my personal favorite "The Noisy Sleeper" (:54) and "The Testicle Story" (1:44), which isn't as fun as it sounds. Sadly, no deleted scenes (there have to be some, right?) and no bloopers (they had to have these!) to be found, but this remains a solid collection of extras.
Sharp, slick, smart and cynical, Nurse Jackie had me in stitches. One of the most entertaining oddities I've seen, it's both sincere and sarcastic--making you laugh and cry in equal doses. Sort of like Scrubs on speed (and Perocet, and Oxy, and Valium, and...), it's led by one of the most unlikely--and unlikable--protagonists in TV history. Brought to life by a refreshingly naked and unapologetic performance from Edie Falco--and supported by a great cast of zany characters--Nurse Jackie is a groovy acid trip filmed with a fitting visual flair. Highly Recommended.