“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.
I want to start off by acknowledging that this episode contains a joke that is so broad, and so out of place, that I honestly wonder how it managed to remain in the episode. Anna Deavere Smith is an established actress, capable of both dramatic and comic material, but for her to switch between stodgy – and blind, did she seriously think that the student flushed the ear? Has she even met Jackie? – and so high on percocet that she’s sticking her face up against glass doors for her own entertainment was simply bizarre. Jackie sets this up when she mentions that not every person can handle the lightning bolt that it ground up percocet, but I don’t think this show is capable of handling those who aren’t able to handle it.
There’s two problems with it, really. The first is that Smith’s character doesn’t really have a place on the show outside of serving as an obstacle to Jackie and pretty much everyone else, and to portray her as this ludicrously fallible seems to undermine any since of authority she even has. If the show was going to make her into a more developed character, making these kinds of moments part of her personality, that’s fine, but it’s clear that the show has no such intentions (plus critics who have seen all six episodes are generally not very high on the character). There just isn’t anything there to build, making this a joke that never really connects.
The second problem is that the show isn’t designed for comedy quite this broad, and while it’s played off as a distraction the show is better with smaller humour, not something that wouldn’t be out of place on Scrubs. Yes, parts of Nurse Jackie are built around comedy, some of it the kind of comedy that wouldn’t be too out of place in a comedy like Scrubs (Turk, the intimidating gay orderly, is an example), but there is a difference of degree that keeps the show grounded. And considering that drugs are supposed to be something serious, something that we view as a problem or at least a part of Jackie’s character, for them to be turned into a joke feels counter-intuitive.
All of this being said, the episode worked because of a series of small moments with Jackie and her two lovers, both of whom are honestly coming across as pretty good guys (unless Eddie is aware of being an adulterer, but Jackie taking off her wedding ring at work would seem to work against that). Sure, Kevin is a bit more simple-minded (excited about a new ice machine) compared to Eddie (excited about the Hadron Collider), but she genuinely seems to like both of them (seducing Kevin on the kitchen floor cemented that it isn’t a loveless marriage or anything of that nature). Both of them enable her (Eddie gives her drugs, Kevin gives her a stable life to return to once she leaves the hospital), and she turns to one for simple pleasures while the other offers geeky explanations of god particles. It’s beginning to make sense how she justifies her adultery, as she depends on both of them and sees things in them that she admires.
It wasn’t a flashback to the moment she started her affair, or a tear-filled discussion of her past with another character, or even a telling monologue where she talks to someone else about their situation but she’s really talking about her situation. It was just a couple of scenes, simple and straightforward, that helped to give this character some nuance if not a conscience. It was a nice piece of character development that, although not quite an answer to the question we’re left with after the “in medias res” pilot, certainly seems like a good evolution from the somewhat simplistic “shocking reveal” from the end of the first episode.
As for everything else, it’s what you’d expect: new intern Zoe remains naive and not quite prepared for this job, Dr. Cooper (sorry, “Coop”) gets his small moment of redemption and gets way too excited about it, the good Doctor (Eva Best, who remains hilarious) can’t stand her hierarchy being upended, and that’s pretty much it. The “case” of the week (given very little attention by the show) is a young boy who fell off his bike without a helmet on, and to be honest if it was a bit too on the nose: when we learn that he only wasn’t wearing a helmet because his mother told him to take it off so that the photographer from Pottery Barn Teen magazine could get a shot of him with his new long hair, it’s too simple for Jackie to rail on her for being negligent, and it’s too inconsequential (it’s not like we see her again to see what impact this had) for it to take up our time. Those storylines only work when you get to see all elements of them or if these little tidbits offer a particular intriguing character response, and what Jackie did here wasn’t particular to her character, just common sensical.
Overall, the show’s still a bit all over the map, but there’s enough going on with the character side of things to keep me engaged on that level, and Falco (and really the entire cast) are still creating some damn compelling television.
- There was an almost Burn Notice vibe to Jackie’s various voiceovers as she explains how she uses the percocet – it was a neat little trick, definitely, and I’ll be curious to see if we get more tricks of the trade as the episodes wear on.
- I can see why Showtime sent six episodes, because I’m having trouble with anything else to say in short form on this one alone. Not much to really comment on.