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.
Credits where Credits Are (or Aren’t) Due:
Why Nurse Jackie has the Worst Credits Sequence in Television
January 3rd, 2010
When you write about television as much as I do, there are always ideas for posts floating around in your head – you get to the point where you can’t watch something without constructing a post around it, which can be somewhat daunting when you watch as much television as I do. However, through episode reviews and Twitter, most of those ideas get to the surface, which is usually enough to satiate my critical appetite enough to keep them from overpowering the rest of my life.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever quite said enough about one particular subject, because every time I think about it my blood figuratively boils. And so when Daniel Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall prompted a discussion on Twitter this afternoon about opening credits sequences (in particular the apparently quite good opening to FOX’s Human Target, debuting later this month), I knew it was finally the chance to discuss in further detail the degree to which I despise and loathe the opening credits sequence to Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.
And how, while I understand why Alan would lament the loss of the credits sequence to both supposed audience impatience and shorter running times, there are some shows where all the opening credits do is hearken back to an identity that the show is either no longer associated with or, worse yet, was never associated with to begin with.
How We Distinguish Between Comic and Dramatic Television
November 6th, 2009
Mirror, mirror, on the wall – which television “comedy” is the least comic of them all?
There’s been some great back and forth on Twitter as of late surrounding the rankings of the best comedies currently on television, which is something that always brings out some controversial opinions. While I offered a very tentative ranking done without any sort of indepth scientific analysis on Twitter, I’m resistant to posting a more detailed list (like Jace at Televisionary, for example): I feel like there’s so many different categories of comedies on the air (long-running favourites which are very familiar, series which have improved so greatly that the relativity is almost blinding, and shows that are new and just finding themselves) that to rank them feels false.
However, I do think there’s something to be said for the fact that how we as critics (and viewers in general) individually define comedy is somewhat different from how the networks might define comedy. Genre definition in television is always a little bit slippery, especially when the oft-labeled “dramedy” exists, as has been demonstrated yearly at the Emmys when shows that walk the fine line are slotted into either category seemingly at random. Gilmore Girls is perhaps the most famous example, where Lauren Graham was submitting dramatic performances in a comedy category that perhaps fit the show in general but seemed to be out of place with the show’s highlights. The issue was never resolved (it was never nominated for Emmys outside of craft categories, despite the amazing work of Kelly Bishop/Graham), and right now there is perhaps more than ever before the sense that comedy and drama just aren’t clear divisions.
I was discussing the return of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (returning alongside United States of Tara on March 22nd) with Maureen Ryan, and in particular I noted that I actively refuse to call Nurse Jackie a comedy. Mo, however, correctly noted that disqualifying Nurse Jackie calls into question a whole lot of cable “comedies,” and that this is a can of worms she (quite logically) doesn’t want to open.
I, apparently, like worms, so let’s dig into just why I refuse to accept certain shows as “comedy” in good conscience (and how my refusal is indicative of the role personal opinion plays in such classifications).
“Health Care and Cinema”
August 24th, 2009
In its first season, Nurse Jackie has struggled to come to terms with what show, precisely, it wants to be. This is not to say that the result of this identity crisis has been an unentertaining piece of television, as in many ways the show’s tonal inconsistency is intricately linked with the central character’s struggle to live two different lives. But the show has certainly been strongest when both its comedy and its drama have felt more intricately linked with something emotional and human about these characters. The reason most viewers (that I know) have gravitated towards Zoey is not only that she’s hilarious, but also because that humour derives from clearly drawn character traits that are realistic in their neuroses, and that don’t feel forced in the context of the series structure.
Which is why I have nothing but reservations about the show’s trajectory having seen the first season finale, where it seems as if the show veers into an entirely different and fundamentally wrong direction that creates a cliffhanger which feels sensationalist to a point that robs the show of its dramatic impact. Showtime’s Weeds has been doing these types of finales for years, but in that show Nancy Botwin was over her head in early seasons running into situations that spiral out of control as a result of both her own decisions and circumstances far outside of her control. However, in that instance, the dire consequences feel like they are part of the show’s drug trade universe, both logical in terms of the show’s structure and indicative of someone who is new to this world.
However, Jackie is not new to the world of adultery, or drug addiction. Her flaws are not new or sudden, but rather longstanding questions that she has simply been ignoring or eliding for the past number of years. Her life is a web of lies, certainly, and we saw two weeks ago that she is willing to cause herself more pain in order to maintain her facade. However, the way the finale portrays the unraveling of that world makes it seem as if Jackie hasn’t thought about this moment, and that the reality of it would drive her not only to turn her back on the people around her but also to fall apart personally and professionally.
Where the finale goes wrong is that all of this takes place with either cheap dramatic shorthand or through oddly placed character emphasis, resulting in a contrived and forced cliffhanger akin to Weeds’ surreality as opposed to this show’s more grounded humanity.
July 6th, 2009
As a medical drama airing on a network where 12-13 episode seasons are the norm, Nurse Jackie is in a very weird little position. On the one hand, like all medical dramas, there is a sense that its ongoing storyline isn’t necessarily going to change or evolve in each episode, and its procedural setting will result in storylines that only appear for a single week. On the other hand, as a show with a shortened season, there is an expectation that things will move with a bit more purpose, and that “filler” won’t be as necessary.
To an extent, I would argue that “Daffodil” is the most basic episode yet, one that features a couple of new pairings for the show and offers an interesting parallel but doesn’t seem to do anything with it. This is the first time we’ve seen a night shift episode, and yet it didn’t feel like a particularly novel setup, and the show’s balance of comedy and drama is more than a bit out of whack right now.
It was an entertaining half hour, driven by Jackie’s personal dilemma and some well-drafted characters, but it seemed just a bit too random and, ultimately, basic for me to suggest that it did enough to advance things forward or show us something new.
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.
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.
“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.
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.