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Season Premiere: Nurse Jackie – “Comfort Food”

“Comfort Food”

March 22nd, 2010

When I watched the season premiere of the United States of Tara, the “Previously On…” segment reminded me of the intriguing plot developments that had defined the show’s first season, but it did little to capture the nuances that made the show work so well. The strength of Toni Colette’s performance, for example, was not evident in the brief scenes, and so it didn’t entirely represent the defining qualities of the show.

However, compared to the “Previously On…” segment for Nurse Jackie, the thing was bloody brilliant. If Tara’s recap failed to capture the nuances that I most enjoyed about the show, Nurse Jackie’s recap manages to capture every single thing I despised about the show’s uneven first season (except for the opening credits, which unfortunately appeared right after the recap was over). The show was always at its best when it focused on the humanity of its characters, or when it allowed a character like Merritt Wever’s Zoey charm us to death. The promo, by comparison, sold the show based on its high-stakes serialized elements which felt simultaneously undercooked and overblown.

Perhaps, though, I should be happy that the recap revealed these elements, because it meant I had no false pretenses heading into “Comfort Food;” this is the same show that it was in its first season, for better and (most certainly) for worse, and while parts of the show continue to present some subtle and effective work both in front of and behind the camera, the part of the show that’s most designed to draw us into this world remains a mess.

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Mad Men – “Souvenir”

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“Souvenir”

October 4th, 2009

“But I already did it…it’s over!”

As far as Mad Men episodes go, “Souvenir” was almost obnoxiously low impact. This isn’t to say that the episode was bad, or even uninteresting: rather, instead of seeming like an episode where things are languishing at a slow pace, there are some pretty substantial events (an affair, a trip to Rome) that happen so quickly and naturally in the episode that you almost miss the moment when they go from an innocent fantasy to something entirely different.

There’s a little throwaway line in the episode when we meet up with Joan, when we learn that Greg is searching for a new discipline, psychiatry in particular. The entire episode is essentially one giant lesson in the effects of loneliness, as our our resident emotional (Betty) and emotionless (Pete) protagonists take a leap of faith or two in an effort to find themselves. The result is an intriguing investigation of the summer vacation, albeit from a perspective that doesn’t precisely play to the show’s strengths.

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Nurse Jackie – “School Nurse”

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“School Nurse”

June 29th, 2009

When a show introduces a protagonist who has small children, and appears interested in investigating their family dynamic, there are really only two choices. One is to dehumanize them entirely, turning them into an amalgamated responsibility that influences them in some way, while the other involves taking them and turning them into an additional commentary on the protagonist’s behaviour. Medium, for example, had Allison’s kids begin as a sign of a normal life she wasn’t able to lead thanks to her ability, but eventually morphed into a scenario where all of her daughter’s inherited her psychic abilities. It’s really the only way a show can run for any period of time while still acknowledging the way the children age and act differently on a regular basis.

What we see in “School Nurse” is the use of Grace as less a mirror and more a potential burden on Jackie, a test of her ability to turn her back on her family. Grace’s anxiety over the world raises a lot of the usual questions facing a mother who is drifting away from her home life to some degree, but it also touches on the idea of knowing, and of being able to somehow sense that unrest that Jackie has tried to keep hidden.

It’s a worthwhile point of interest for the show, and a sign that there are no intentions of using the children as just an object; as long as they keep things subtle and nuanced, I’d say that the show is in fine form.

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Premiere: Virtuality – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

June 26th, 2009

After watching the two-hour event that is the Virtuality pilot, I think I can understand why FOX was resistent to picking the show up to series.

It isn’t that FOX is allergic to science fiction: it goes into next season with the genre’s two biggest television properties, Fringe and Dollhouse, in its lineup. Rather, there’s a particular way that it likes its science fiction, a preference that both Dollhouse and Fringe fit into comfortable. Both shows, although expanding heavily on their serialized elements and genre transmorgifications later in their freshman seasons, started out as genrified takes on the procedural mystery model, combining a high concept with what is arguably a more accesible and thus lower form of weekly episodic television. For FOX executives worried about selling the show to advertisers and viewers alike, it was the ace up their sleeve, the caveat that allowed them to both give the appearance of openness to genre programming and satisfy their desire to eat away at CBS’ dominance in the field.

The reason Virtuality wasn’t ordered to series is because it is one giant, enormous middle finger to such ludicrous practices of watering down science fiction upon its arrival so as to pretend as if the people who don’t like science fiction are going to stick around once things get weird. What makes good science fiction is the balls out willingness to question reality, and to break away from any and all conventions, all qualities that both Fringe and Dollhouse are capable of and yet never got to reach until FOX was satisfied that the show was really just CSI with insane science or The Unit with personality implants. Virtuality, however, wastes no time in crafting a world where nothing where we question everything, and is thus a world that any science fiction fan in their right mind wants to explore further.

All but dead in the water despite the strange lead-up to this airing, Virtuality is a fascinating pilot, a god awful standalone television movie considering how it ends, and, should it truly find itself on the wrong end of FOX’s idiocy, another sign that high science fiction may be a thing of the past on network television.

But, for now, excuse me if I spend a bit of time talking about how awesome it was.

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Nurse Jackie – “Chicken Soup”

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“Chicken Soup”

June 22nd, 2009

Nurse Jackie is really turning into an interesting cross-section of television narratives at the moment, in a way that it wasn’t early on. There was a point in last week’s episode, when Anna Deavere Smith was high on percocet and turned into a one-note gag, where I legitimately questioned the show’s ability to inject humour into this series, but “Chicken Soup” brings that back into focus by presenting one legitimately comic storyline and a couple of human-interest patient storylines that offered some more light-hearted fare. When focused on interpersonal interactions, the show is finding plenty of humour, and capturing the desireable elements from a show like Grey’s Anatomy from a slightly darker, and therefore slightly better, perspective.

At the same time, though, there are points where the darkness of this world become a bit too overwhelming, and one can’t particularly blame young Grace for deciding that the Bubonic plague is ready to strike again. While some may argue that the very presence of this darkness is problem enough, I’d tend to argue that the concern is less in the existence of a dark side to both Jackie and the show as a whole and more in the execution. Presented in the form of one general cliche followed by a procedural medical faux pas of the worst order, Jackie’s darkness is emerging less and less through organic channels, and more through clearly identifiable insertions into every day life designed to remind us that she is addicted to drugs, or remind us that she’s an adulterer.

It’s a reminder that I don’t think we particularly need, nor one that feels particularly effective in this episode at least: sometimes a simple episode about humanity does more to speak of Jackie’s occasional lack of humanity than does outright character homicide, and on a show where humanity is sent through the wringer and complicated in so many ways a more subtle approach would certainly be in the show’s best interest moving forward.

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Nurse Jackie – “Sweet ‘n All”

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“Sweet ‘n All”

June 15th, 2009

If we look at Weeds, The United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie as similar shows (which, being half-hour, female-led, Showtime-airing dramedies, they really are), one of their most defining characteristics is that each of their pilots found them “in medias res,” as whatever story there is in the series has already been in progress for quite some time. We weren’t seeing an origin story, or a whole new situation that forms the setup for a series; rather, in each instance, we find women struggling from various ailments (supporting a family through selling drugs after her husband’s sudden death, coming off of medication for multiple personality disorder, and an addiction to painkillers and adultery, respectively), and we’re missing that point where their suffering (going broke, becoming numb, etc.) went so far as to bring them to their current position.

I think that sets Nurse Jackie apart from these two shows is that there is nothing funny or light-hearted about her current position: Jackie’s adultery appears to only be hurting her husband and children, and her drug dependency is certainly not something to be considered humorous. While not seeing that moment when Nancy turned to drugs, or when the numbness proved too much for Tara to handle, wasn’t a big deal, it’s kind of a huge deal that we don’t understand why Tara would betray her happy little family; the drugs we can understand as part of a broader physical addiction, but without linking the two together it becomes a problematic element of the series’ “in medias res” setup.

“Sweet ‘n All” does not really come close to resolving these concerns, but shows a subtle and nuanced approach to doing so in the long run. Through the power of the fabulous Edie Falco and the complexity of the Hadron Collider, Nurse Jackie has moved one step towards filling in its own gaps, even if the rest of the show didn’t really evolve much beyond the pilot.

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Series Premiere: Nurse Jackie – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

June 8th, 2009

There’s a pretty common element in nearly every review of Showtime’s new “comedy” (I’ll get to that distinction in a second), and it’s something that I can’t really speak to. Sepinwall and Fienberg both have thoughts on how Edie Falco, who earned numerous accolades for her role as Carmela Soprano on HBO’s hit drama series The Sopranos, adapts to a very different role, but I don’t really know how different it is. As I’ve blogged about before, The Sopranos remains my biggest and perhaps most detrimental blind spot in terms of the television in the last decade: not willing to shell out for the expensive DVDs, I’ve been left not quite understanding what David Chase’s show really meant outside of being able to know that his training did Matthew Weiner well (Mad Men). And now, with Falco moving on to star in Nurse Jackie, it’s quite a similar situation: I don’t precisely understand what Falco did before, but certainly that experience hasn’t lessened her ability as an actress.

This isn’t a comedy by traditional standards, but for Showtime it’s pretty well par for the course: debuting after Weeds (a show that has become more and more dramatic as time’s gone by) and in the wake of United States of Tara (which always veered closer to drama than comedy), the show is nonetheless a viable comic vehicle while maintaining a more dramatic core. The reason is that either in comedy or in drama, both of which we see in the premiere, the show remains starkly human. Jackie is ultimately driven by saving people, and perhaps her greatest fault is that her efforts to save herself take the form of far more destructive behaviour than and other her unethical practices done within the context of her job.

It’s the right recipe for the series, placing a conflicted and complicated protagonist in a situation where both her cynicism and her optimism are continually tested, although I don’t think anyone could argue it is a particularly unique one. That said, the pilot demonstrates a keen sense of this character, brought to life with strength by Falco, and the universe she inhabits, which is what any pilot is supposed to do.

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