Falco sounds like a female version of Fox's Dr. House; she is not cuddly or sweet, she never coddles her patients, she is an excellent nurse but a flawed human, and she carries around a vial of Vicodin which she pops like candy, and Adderall that she snorts secretively in the ladies bathroom. At one point, she tells an overly perky nurse, "I don't do chatty. I like quiet. Quiet and mean, those are my people." Jackie's strength seems to lie in the delicate balance of cranky and caring, and critics generally agree that Falco is great for the part. Falco brings the sharp anger she displayed in the role of Carmela Soprano but tempers it with humor and warmth for Nurse Jackie. Reviewers deem the half-hour show funny but dark, a mixture of drama and comedy that sometimes falls more on the side of drama. Reviews are divided on if the show gets better as it ages, or whether it falls flat soon after the pilot (which, by the way, is already available to watch online at Showtime's website). However, as the LA Times blog notes, Nurse Jackie is exciting partially because it is a show driven and produced by women, which sadly makes it somewhat of an anomaly.
Falco is brilliant at showing us a woman who is neither warm nor sweet but still exudes compassion, especially toward herself. When we see what a nurse's job entails - the death, the angry patients, the absurd and rigid rules - we hardly begrudge her the pharmaceuticals. "Nurse Jackie" constantly asks us whether life necessitates a little artificial help, chemical or otherwise. It's filled with artistic slow-motion shots of various pills and powders, from crushed Percoset dropped into a coffee cup to the contents of a painkiller capsule snorted up a nose. At one point, Jackie takes a drawing by her preteen daughter - flagged by concerned teachers, because it contains only shades of black and grey - and scribbles in a bright yellow sun. "There," she says to herself. "Was that so hard?"
Give Nurse Jackie a couple of episodes and you'll find it every bit as hilarious and nerve-wracking as Weeds, its lead-in show. They make a nicely matched pair on Showtime on Monday nights, starting tonight.
And it's not just about the drugs, though that's an easy hook for both. Drugs are just one layer in a pair of half-hour shows about intriguingly multi-layered women who are at their best when they're under pressure.
Nurse Jackie has a fine-grained sense of hospitals' feudal hierarchy, but it's ultimately about the paradox of Jackie: she's dedicated and moral in her professional life but—in ways it's better not to spoil—hurtful in her private life. As when Falco portrayed Carmela Soprano, she plays tough while letting her emotions spark from every nerve, and she shows a gift for tart comedy here too. To get her job done, Jackie needs to be part nurturer, part con artist, part stand-up comic. "What do you call a nurse with a bad back?" she asks in a voice-over. "Unemployed! Ba-dum-bum!"
Some of the supporting characters need work (especially a too sitcommy administrator played by Anna Deavere Smith), and some patients-of-the-week veer into clichés. But Falco is outstanding as a living reminder that you meet angels only in the next life. It takes a flawed, sloppy human to keep you in this one.
As Jackie, Falco sports a daringly unattractive short haircut that makes sense for her line of work. But an unfashionable 'do doesn't prevent her from removing her wedding ring before she enters the hospital and conducting a sweaty affair with the hospital pharmacist (Paul Schulze - Carmela's priest from The Sopranos!). She has a bad back due to the long hours she works, which I suppose is meant to explain her addiction to painkillers, but Jackie seems to get off on the thrill of deceit nearly as much as on the pills' agony-numbing high.
But for all these flaws, I still found the series excitingly ambitious-funny, sexy, strange. Edie Falco and the show's producers are recovering addicts, and the series doesn't shy away from the irreconcilable ironies of Jackie's behavior. She's an alcoholic who touts her sobriety, then screws the hospital pharmacist. (For love? For drugs? Like Mad Men, the show allows these mysteries to exist without overexplaining.) Jackie reaches for a hidden pill as her daughters watch TV; she hides diced Seconal in sugar packets ("It hits your system like a bolt of lightning, which is only a problem if you're afraid of lightning, which I'm not"); she gives gentle guidance to a fellow addict even while squirreling away the patient's tips on how to score. Jackie's naïve student nurse (a charmingly odd Merritt Wever) calls her a "saint," but then Jackie nearly kills a patient. And when Falco sobs, "I almost killed you"-she knows the mistake came from overwork, from being high all shift long-it feels like this is her daily terror: She's always pushing off the catastrophe that can't be prevented.
But while there are laughs to be had here, this is not a silly sitcom. There's an edge to Jackie and a serious flaw, the byproduct of an addictive personality, that extends far beyond the painkillers she abuses. As you'll find out at the end of tonight's premiere, Jackie is making at least one horrible mistake, and you can't help fearing it will bring things crashing down.
"Nurse Jackie" doesn't look like the average network medical drama, but it does follow the formula of many premium cable shows, taking a knowing and at times dark, sardonic look at the classic themes of love, life and work. It has one of the most talented actresses on television as its lead, and yet over all "Nurse Jackie" is surprisingly, and disconcertingly, off key. This is a drama draped in black humor that doesn't know when to be funny.
Part of the show's problems might stem from expectations. Despite being a half-hour, "Jackie" is virtually laugh-free, playing like a half-hour drama. Indeed, at times the dour tone makes its lead-in, "Weeds," seem positively cheerful by comparison.
Mostly, "Nurse Jackie" plays like TV designed for theater folk, capitalizing on its New York base by casting performers such as Best (a two-time Tony nominee) and Judith Ivey, Swoosie Kurtz and Blythe Danner in guest roles in a later episode. While all that talent is welcome, it's a narrow foundation even by pay-cable standards.
Falco makes [Jackie] utterly believable as a highly functioning (and obsessively controlled) drug addict. Here is a woman who has so successfully compartmentalized her life that it is possible for her to hold cellphones on which her husband and her lover are calling, to either side of her head and issue a general "can't talk now, love ya" before rushing off to tend to a patient.
Funny, yes, but in a revelatory way. It is not unusual for a working mother to view every relationship in her life as simply a matter of fulfilling the next indicated task, but I don't think it has ever been so wonderfully, and painfully, captured on television before.
Weird stuff, and occasionally annoying. But there's something about Jackie . . . from the moment we see that scrunched face and hear the "Valley of the Dolls" music in the first episode. The show's writers and producers may be trying to force-feed her to us as the health-care equivalent of the whore with a heart of gold. But Ms. Falco manages to shake off clichés and attract us to her for reasons never referred to in the script. The result is a kind of magic worth watching, and it's hard stop watching, no matter what.