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.
Those who really love Nurse Jackie probably view my cynicism regarding the show as misguided: “Edie Falco is great,” they might argue, and “Eve Best, Peter Facinelli, and Merritt Wever are hilarious” they could say. And they could even make a compelling case that the medical cases at the centre of each episode, and Jackie’s efforts to provide the best possible care within a tightly-regulated bureaucratic system, are intriguing takes on the medical drama which are not often given such an intense focus (usually relegated to a B-Plot on Grey’s Anatomy while arguably central here). And I would agree with all of these people, and note that episodes which focus on the latter are unquestionably the show’s best, and that Edie Falco remains compelling throughout. If the show was just like these descriptions every week, then I would consider it a pretty darn successful series.
But it’s not like these descriptions every week, and “Comfort Food” shows no signs that the creative team behind the scenes thinks this to be a problem. There is one scene in the episode that unquestionably works, a montage as Jackie works over an Insurance company representative whose company is unwilling to pay for a deaf woman to have her fingers reattached. It shows Jackie as a compelling character willing to stretch the rules in order to help people, and over the course of the series there have been stories that have highlighted this side. Unfortunately, the show seems so enamoured with the idea of Jackie the addict, and Jackie the adulterer, that Jackie the nurse is pretty much their last priority.
Those parts of the show, meanwhile, remain as frustrating as they were last season; her husband is the most boring character on the entire show, and Eddie has been transformed from a sort of tragic victim of Jackie’s addiction to a legitimate psychopath for no reason other than to provide danger in Jackie’s life. There are elements in these stories that actually have a lot of potential, and if Jackie could get rid of Eddie and settle into a happy marriage, perhaps we could spend more time with Gracie, who is a really intriguing depiction of adult anxieties manifesting during childhood. But rather than showing Jackie confronting any problems, we find her ignoring Eddie’s phone calls (despite seeing him everywhere), and shoving down a guy in a line at the shore rather than trying to respond rationally. At times I think the show wants me to find this funny, but the show just isn’t capable of that sort of humour.
Things get more successful when the show sticks to the hospital, as Zoey struggles to remain mum regarding her involvement in past incidents or Coop rats out Jackie out of his own lack of self-confidence. Yes, the show still has some issues with tone as it relates to Anna Deavere Smith’s evil administrator, but I think that if they had cut out the wacky music during her attempts to take over from Jackie during the demonstration of the enormously unreliable pill dispensing machine the scene might have actually played out in a subtle and effective fashion. But rather than be confident in the balance between drama and comedy, the show continues to struggle finding the dramatic in the comic and the comic in the dramatic.
There is nothing as frustrating, at the end of the day, as a great show trapped within an inferior one, but that’s sort of what Nurse Jackie represents for me. This is the kind of show that, to my mind, doesn’t actually need any of the melodrama about adultery that the show seems to want to focus on. I think the idea of a nurse fighting against a corrupt system while herself corrupted by addiction, especially if that nurse was played by Edie Falco, would be interesting enough on its own, so the relentless nature of the serialized elements surrounding Eddie and her husband (whose name I don’t even remember after all this time) is becoming an unfortunate distraction. When the show chooses to let that sleeping dog lie for an episode, I’m guessing the show will seem as strong as it did at times last year; when it doesn’t, however, it will seem contrived to the point where I feel a lot of talent is going to waste.
- I probably won’t be subjecting you to more whining about the show not being what I want it to be in the future – I don’t know if I’ll even keep watching beyond the first couple of episodes, even, barring someone informing me that things drastically improve in the future. I’m hoping someone can cut me copies of the episodes featuring just Merritt Wever, and then I’ll be satisfied.
- Interesting that they got rid of a character sympathetic to Jackie (Momo) and replaced him with a character that threatens Jackie’s situation – bringing back druggie nurse is actually more interesting, but I wonder if it will amount to anything subtle beyond the rather broad “Oh no, she could get caught” sense to the premiere.
- Interesting that the cliffhanger of Jackie leaving Eve Best’s Dr. O’Hara out to dry with her terminally ill mother was literally swept under the rug as Dr. O’Hara says that they should just not rehash the past and just move on so that she can continue to be quippy. It completely ignores any interpersonal consequences of the end of last season, making it all sort of worthless.
- I get that religion is a part of the show’s identity, but does the symbolism have to be so blatant? The completely random and unexplained gunshot that grazes the Virgin Mary is a big ol’ anvil, and the refrain of “Say a Little Prayer” just doesn’t say anything substantial.
- I’ll say this about Deavere Smith’s character: her “World’s Biggest Asshole” doodlings are a far more interesting shade to the character than anything she did in the first season, so a darker version of the character would be a welcome turn of events long term.