The first season of Nurse Jackie, the Showtime series starring Edie Falco (The Sopranos) in the title - and Emmy-winning - role, got better as it went along, or maybe its creators' concepts merely took a while to crystallize from the viewer's perspective. The hospital (black) comedy-drama is a genre seemingly done to death since Paddy Chayefsky's flawed but perceptive The Hospital (1971), a film that broke away from the Ben Casey/Dr. Kildare image to expose a broken health care system rife with corruption, needless suffering, and vain and incompetent doctors. The late, lamented television series St. Elsewhere (1982-88) took the concept several steps further while ER (1994-2009) brought it into the mainstream, initially shamelessly stealing from St. Elsewhere before finding its own voice.
At first glance, Nurse Jackie seems like a smaller-scale variation on the same themes, and while there is some of that, what makes Nurse Jackie one of the best shows on TV right now is its unusual approach, the unexpected manner in which these familiar situations and conflicts play out. In one of the commentary tracks someone describes the show's focus as the small daily tremors rather than the big earthquakes (possibly a reference to ER?), which on Nurse Jackie often happen off-camera.
Falco is terrific but the entire cast is great. Most of the characters are stylized eccentrics, very funny, yet rooted in reality just enough to be believable. Indeed, the sharp writing and the actors' performances reveal little truisms about human behavior and emotions one doesn't often see in straight drama.
The Blu-ray from Lionsgate is above average, with two discs containing all 12 season two episodes, featuring strong transfers and a lot of extra features.
Previously on Nurse Jackie: the middle-aged wife and mom (Falco), a veteran emergency room nurse at Manhattan's All Saints' Hospital, is poised for a mighty fall. Hooked on painkillers and recreational drugs, Jackie had been relying on hospital pharmacist Eddie (Paul Schulze) to feed her addiction, she posing as single, childless, and available, screwing and stringing him along to get what she wants.
But then a high-tech, high-security pill dispenser replaces him, and she drops Eddie like a hot potato. Eddie, by this point obsessed with Jackie, tracks her down only to discover her veritable shadow life as a middle-class working mother of two daughters, Grace (Ruby Jerins) and Fiona (Mackenzie Aladjem, imperceptively replacing Daisy Tahan from season one), and wife to bar-owner husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa).
Meanwhile, back at work, Jackie puts up with Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli), "Coop," an insufferable, self-involved "golden boy" who, early in the season, boasts about his legion of Twitter followers and - with the help of a publicist - wrestles his way onto New York magazine's list of Manhattan's Top 25 doctors. There's also meddling hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith); well meaning but mousy and downright odd nurse Zoey (Merritt Wever, a unique characterization that really deserves an Emmy nomination); Thor (Stephen Wallem, the real-life brother of series creator Linda Wallem), a hulking but gentle gay nurse whose diabetes causes problems in the ER; and Jackie's best friend, obscenely wealthy Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best), who early in this season is revealed to be bisexual and involved with a respected television journalist (Julia Ormond). Another gay nurse, Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman) was dropped after the first season.
As season two begins, Eddie's continued stalking unnerves Jackie. Now working at a lowly convenience store pharmacy, he becomes friendly with Kevin and creepily starts showing up at Jackie's house as Kevin's new pal, the rest of the family unaware of his past liaisons with Jackie. This takes an unexpected twist about halfway through the season, exemplifying Jackie's fascinatingly self-destructive nature.
As played to perfection by Falco, Jackie is an unusual heroine. She's assertive with a no-nonsense demeanor at work where she projects a calm and in-control game face and uses her vast experience to sweet-talk insurance companies out of shafting customers from vital care, and when that doesn't work she'll use any means necessary to relieve her patients' suffering. (In one episode, she improvises a bong out of an apple to provide a chemotherapy patient some relief when traditional medicines provide none.)
Conversely, her personal life is a shambles, though she won't admit it to herself. Her oldest daughter is deeply troubled and obsessive; Jackie's pilfering of the automated pharmacy puts her at constant risk of discovery and, in turn, possible jail time; she constantly bends or breaks hospital policy at her own peril; and risks losing her family in a dead-end relationship that can come to no go end. And she dives in headfirst.
As noted in my review of Season One, Nurse Jackie episodes run about 26 minutes each. This is the length half-hour shows used to be back in the 1950s and '60s, before encroaching commercial interruptions reduced the number to 24 and, finally, to around 22 minutes. Those extra four minutes are critical; Nurse Jackie works great in a 26-minute format and it makes me wish more current series could return to this idea running time.
Video & Audio
Nurse Jackie - Season Two is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen in 1080p high-definition. Twelve half-hour episodes are presented on two single-sided, region-free discs, supported by optional English and Spanish subtitles. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is impressive, though I could do without the format's logo at the head of every episode.
Supplements include several featurettes, all in high-def: "All About Eve" (a reference not only to the 1950 classic but also "All About Edie," a season one featurette) looks at the career of actress Best while "Perfecting an Inappropriate Touch" profiles actor Facinelli; each runs about 11 minutes and are way above average for this kind of thing. Also included are audio commentary tracks by the cast and crew on several episodes; though lacking a moderator they're fairly revealing and interesting, good for when you want to listen to something while picking up around the house. Finally, a gag reel and "Main Title Musical Montage," something like a music video, round out the package.
Many of the best television comedies and dramas need that first season to fine-tune their attributes while discarding elements that don't work. That seems to be the case with Nurse Jackie, which is not only even better than ever, but which may be moving toward that top-tier of great television. The Blu-ray offers a spot-on presentation and is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.