I think I’m in love.
Back in early May, I had reviewed the first two episodes of Showtime’s addictive dark comedy series “Nurse Jackie,” starring Edie Falco, and waxed ecstatic about the brilliance and humanity of the series’ opening installments. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the first six episodes of this emotionally resonant and bleakly hysterical series.
It’s rare to be captivated by the very first minutes of a new series but it’s a deft feat that “Nurse Jackie” not only manages to do so but, once it’s grabbed onto you, it never lets go. The energy and drive of the opening episode continues throughout the first half of the series’ first season run.
And what a run it is so far.
In the hands of the supremely talented Edie Falco, Jackie Peyton is a brutally flawed individual, a woman whose sole purpose in life is to provide care for her patients but lacks the gentle discipline to do so for herself. And yet despite–or because of–those flaws, we can’t help but root for Jackie even as she makes some horrific personal decisions that involve prescription drugs, fidelity, mendacity, and morality.
Likewise, the subsequent episodes go to great lengths to shade the supporting characters, giving them layer upon layer of development as they insidiously worm their way into your heart. By the third or fourth episode, you feel as if you’ve known each of these people for years, so well-crafted are the series’ emotional beats and so nuanced are each of the performances.
Merritt Wever’s trainee nurse Zoey could be cartoonish in the hands of a less skilled actor, but Wever makes her so adorably naive, so worshipful of her imperfect mentor Jackie, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. In any other series, she’d be a whipped puppy dog and the punchline of every joke, but Wever gives her an inner strength that’s at odds with her sunny disposition and fearful nature. (Look for the episode where Zoey attempts to retrieve her stethoscope from a doctor who has stolen it from her and her verbal stance against a certain situation she views as morally wrong.)
Likewise, emotionally stunted British doctor Eleanor "Ellie" O’Hara (Eve Best) could be a walking cliche but Best’s blissfully languid performance and her devotion to Jackie, her polar opposite, make Ellie one of the most fascinating characters, even as she goes out of her way to torment poor Zoey. Funny and fiercely loyal, her performance as Ellie is a masterclass on how not to overact nor make a character all smooth surfaces instead of rough edges. (It’s those edges and her inability to come to terms with emotion that make her so damn compelling.)
Paul Schulze’s Eddie offers Jackie an oasis of tranquility and calm amid the chaos of the hospital (not to mention feeding her hunger for prescription medication to sooth her back pain and providing her with a noontime quickie every day) but he too wants more from Jackie than she’s prepared to give and their relationship takes an uncomfortable turn as we realize just what Jackie is doing to him. And Peter Facinelli’s Dr. Fitch "Coop" Cooper has some secrets of his own, besides for his supposed sexual Tourette’s like reactions to stress. (In the pilot episode, he grasps Jackie’s breast after she gives him a talking-down.) In a twist I won’t reveal here, we learn a surprising fact about Coop’s past that I didn’t see coming at all.
And most series would have made gay male nurse Mohammed "Mo-Mo" de la Cruz (Haaz Sleiman) a gay stereotype but the writers go to great lengths to adroitly shade his character, offering him a tragic backstory that he recounts not to Jackie but to Zoey even as he holds vigil over a severely injured young boy for personal reasons unknown to his most trusted confidantes. Plus, look for such notable guest stars as Swoosie Kurtz and Blythe Danner to deliver some memorable and gripping performances.
In fact, my only complaint about characterization is that of Anna Deavere Smith’s hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus whose steely character seems at odds with the pratfalls that she’s forced to endure. In just six episodes, she inadvertently swallows Jackie’s painkillers and is accidentally tasered; what follows is so over the top that it’s jarring. I almost feel as though the writers haven’t quite decided what to do with Akalitus; there’s a bittersweet moment that passes between her and Jackie but it doesn’t quite feel earned yet as Akalitus still needs some major character development. And I’m still not sold on Dominic Fumusa’s performance as Kevin Peyton.
But those are minor complaints in a series that’s nearly perfect in every other respect. “Nurse Jackie” defies description, offering black humor, tenderness, solemnity, contemplation, and acid wit in every installment. It’s an honest look at what makes us human from the inside out, heart, guts, and all. And in Falco’s Jackie Peyton, television has found a female character that’s aware of her flaws, revels in her humanity, and looks for the strength to do the right thing… even as she does some very bad things.
Ultimately, “Nurse Jackie” is a testament to the creative risks that pay cable embraces, offering us a series that speaks to the complex tangle of humanity within all of us, flaws and all. You’d do well to tune in Monday night to watch this imaginative, hysterical, and poignant series kick off.
You’ll thank me in the morning.
“Nurse Jackie” premieres Monday, June 8th at 10:30 pm ET/PT on Showtime. Or you can watch the entire first episode online right now here.