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.
It’s amazing to me just how similar this pilot is in structure to Mad Men, which might seem like an odd comparison at first but is actually quite apt (especially considering the earlier parallel drawn between my own experiences with the two shows and their Sopranos connections). The most obvious comparison comes at the end of the pilot, of course, when we get a scene as Jackie returns home to a husband and two kids despite having had casual sex with a pharmacist earlier in the episode, just as Don Draper returns to the suburbs in Mad Men’s pilot and he kisses his children goodnight when we earlier saw him shacking up with his mistress in the city. You can take the comparison further by pointing out the introduction of a new nurse working her first day (just as Peggy was just starting her job on Mad Men), even.
Now, of course, these aren’t particularly original ideas for any show: Mad Men was not the first show to follow a young, naive person into a workplace in order to bring the viewer into the community through someone with a similar lack of knowledge. However, the extremely similar plotting of Jackie’s adultery is actually quite similar, and certainly cribbing from the kind of characterization that has brought Don Draper to life in a real way. What both characters have in common is that they make unethical decisions, but in many instances in the purpose of good: the skills of being able to manipulate people and sell a different reality are the lifeblood of Don Draper’s life as an ad man (where ethics are not really a concern), but the application of those skills to sell the lie of his adultery is far more questionable, just as Jackie’s efforts to make her job less depressing (faking his status as a donor, or flushing the ear down the toiler) are almost heroic while her efforts to make her physical and emotional pain go away (the affair, the painkillers) are destructive.
It’s the hallmark of a good character, really, that we’re capable of not losing all admiration for them despite discovering that she was cheating on what seems like an enormously pleasant husband and two adorable little girls. The episode even plays us for fools the entire time, pretending as if her addiction to painkillers (snorting them in order to get them into her system faster) is the thing we’re supposed to overcome. The show certainly achieves that as we see Jackie turn a bike messenger into a donor, and then proves capable of adapting to a pregnant and highly emotional girlfriend. Stealing from Peter (or, in this instance, the embassy cutter and her own friend/doctor) to pay Paul is both funny (stealing the boots from who is ostensibly her friend was particularly enjoyable) and captures the way she justifies the way she makes these decisions in the context of her job.
The basic principle in the episode is her idea that, like St. Augustine said, the capacity for good is highest in those with the capacity for evil. The show, to this point, seems to be about striking that balance, and Falco is great at providing both the droll voiceover of someone who has been in this environment for too long and the vulnerability to understand her addiction(s). She is clearly not quite as cold as she wants to make herself out to be: sure, she doesn’t immediately jump up to save the woman at the restaurant, but when she eventually rectifies what she sees as injustice she is kidding herself if she thinks that her thievery completely eradicates any of the emotional reasoning behind her response. Her life ultimately isn’t hell at work, as she has her support structures in the hospital (the male nurse with the cheating boyfriend, the doctor she goes to dinner with) and even warms to overenthusiastic Zoe as the pilot goes on.
The show never wants to be a laugh out loud comedy, certainly finding a footing quite similar to United States of Tara at the end of the day: while Tara’s premise opened the door to more absurdity (with Tara’s alters (other personalities) being as outlandish (but human) as they were), Jackie nonetheless finds its comedy mainly in little bits of vindictiveness, like the flushing of the ear, the popping of the bike tire, and even the family’s slap fight as they discuss the messenger’s death. The show’s tone hasn’t been set in stone quite this early: those moments do stick out to a certain degree, just as Peter Facinelli’s awkward boob touching seemed like the kind of base comedy that the rest of the episode rarely if ever slipped into. However, as long as these moments are being put forward as signs of the insanity that Jackie has to deal with, and not necessarily as something that she herself is going to become, the show’s balance should be found fairly quickly.
If there’s a single problem the show is going to face, it’s how exactly it’s going to make this particular setting unique: there are two more nurse-driven series arriving later this season (TNT’s Hawthorne and NBC’s Mercy), and they’re both hour-longs that might be more well-suited to dealing with heavier material. However, I think the half-hour format should work well for the show if only because it will help differentiate the show from the others and keep it from feeling like a procedural. In the half hour format, cases are fleeting and don’t have time to turn into lengthy cliches, and there’s an expediency to the “plot” that allows for character to remain starkly in focus. It let’s the pilot have a small moment like Jackie’s battle with her boss (Anna Deavere Smith) without turning it into a major point of escalation. Yes, you might wish that Falco was given more time to be highly entertaining, but filling out the show to an hour would slowly turn the show into an edgier Grey’s Anatomy with nurses if they’re not careful.
Unlike the real critics, I’ve only been able to view the first episode, but those who have seen the first six episodes seem pretty positive about the way the show’s emphasis on an investigation of humanity, which gives me a lot of hope for the show’s future. It’s certainly leaning on the drama side of dramedy, but as long as that drama feels grounded in the human condition and what comedy we see contributes to that same focus, the show has every ability to operate extremely well with the environment provided. I’m definitely on board for the season, barring some sort of catastrophic drop in quality, so look for reviews as the summer wears on.
- Much will be made of Edie Falco’s new short haircut, and believe the hype: it really helps define the character, and it helps separate her from any previous characters she’s played.
- Of the rest of the cast, I remember Merritt Wever from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Paul Schulze (who plays Eddie, the pharmacist) will forever be Ryan Chappelle for me whether he was on The Sopranos or not.
- Enjoyed the conversation about what one would serve as a side with the head of John the Baptist, but anyone who serves anything with coleslaw is getting it wrong, period.
- The various white room flashes that the show uses to display Jackie’s inner struggle with addiction were quite effective, although it’s interesting to see how those inner conflicts manifest externally. She’s a good addict: it’s not clear if she faked the bad back during sex (although it’s certainly possible), but she at the very least pulls the “no, I don’t need any drugs…well, actually, you know, maybe I’ll take some just in case” bit on Eddie.