"All the [network] TV executives in LA were going, 'Women are not interesting,' Nurse Jackie co-creator Linda Wallem told me of the post-90s climate. "And you see what happened to television. Shame on them." Not everyone was so unimaginative.
It's not easy to get someone actively working in television to speak so frankly about what's wrong with the industry, particularly when it comes to women and representation. It's too easy for anyone who does to get unfairly pegged as the bitch or the whiner. But Wallem doesn't mind burning bridges: "I don't care if I ever work in Los Angeles again for another network," she said. That's because she and co-creator Liz Brixius say they have complete creative freedom on cable — which, generally speaking, has become an escape from television's limited formulas for women. Showtime, in particular, has staked its claim on portrayals of complex, flawed women who take center stage, a move for which, in a joint interview, Wallem and Brixius repeatedly credited their boss, Showtime president Bob Greenblatt.
No surprise that the two co-creators, executive producers and writers on the show would give props to the boss. But there's real proof behind the talk: Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara, which return for a second season on Monday; Weeds; The Big C, the forthcoming Laura Linney vehicle (co-starring Gabourey Sidibe!). Even Dexter has two female executive producers and interesting female characters. All showcase brilliant actresses, many of them over the age of Hollywood's usual sell-by date, as well as the writing and ideas of women. "In a world where there's so much rehashing it can get boring to keep playing the wife, the mother. I never thought I'd be working in TV," Toni Collette told The Wall Street Journal's Amy Chozick in a story published today.
Wallem, for one, is all too familiar with that rehashing, having worked in the TV trenches on shows ranging from Cybill to That 70s Show. She told me she thought there was a backsliding that took place after a relatively strong period of interesting roles for women in the 90s.
"Something kicked in — I don't know if it was a new breed of television executives," she said. "I don't know. It just felt like, we'd go into pitch meetings and it was the 60s. I didn't just want to only write about women but all of the sudden it was, the only female part in this pilot is going to be the wife, and oh, she's long suffering. Fear kicked in, and laziness. All of the sudden there was an idea -– demographic bullshit, that guys 18-49 are not going to watch a women-driven show."
"I happen to love John Stamos, but before I know it I'm working on a show on him dating," she griped.
Greenblatt has steered clear, in the Journal article and elsewhere, of explicitly saying that "subversive women" are the channel's explicit strategy, though clearly no one minds the kudos. (By the way, when I requested and conducted this interview, we had no idea Showtime would be taking over the site advertising the show. In fact, both my original Showtime piece and this interview were the result of dozens of comments from Jezebel readers pointing out and praising the trend. As for the advertising, clearly Showtime knows where to find other smart women.)
Politics aside, this may just be a competitive advantage strategy: Try something that almost no one else is doing, and see what happens.
For one thing, you get talent that has been frustrated elsewhere. When it comes to Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco has frequently said she went to several networks and was underwhelmed by her options there. Brixius said she and Wallem used to watch The Sopranos and rewind the scenes with Falco over and over again. "Imagine a universe where Edie Falco was the sun and everything revolved around her," she told me they would say.
"You have this group of women over 30 who are profoundly talented," she went on. "Their skill set is deeper, their talent is more ripe, and there aren't as many parts for them... TV is stocked with Clooney wannabees, guys who are handsome and then they get their own show. Women are relegated to wives and mistresses. By the time they're 30 or 40 they're looking for work. And you start finding these magnificently talented people."
As Jackie, Falco manages to give an aggressively imperfect character a lot of nuance and matter-of-fact humor. Showcasing a nurse — once a supporting character on the medical drama, now increasingly in the limelight, and in real life still a pink-collar occupation — is an another apt inversion of the usual power structure.
Falco, Brixius, and Wallem are all recovering addicts (fun fact: Wallem was Liza Minnelli's driver in the 80s, and she says Minnelli helped her get sober), for whom the central conceit of the show — a nurse addicted to pills — can be personal. In the show, the layers of lies and Jackie's conflicting motivations help drive the action forward as well as inform her relationships with her co-workers (played by another impressive range of actresses and a few actors).
"Addicts are really good at cultivating a sense of intimacy," Brixius said. "She'll give a little bit of hard earned truth to each other characters, but nobody gets the whole pictures. Everybody in her life feels special, thinking, She trusts me with her secrets, but she's got ten secrets spread out."
As capable and on top of things as the character of Jackie often is, she's no supermom; one plot line of the first season that will be taken up in the second is her difficulties in dealing with her young daughter's anxiety disorder. That said, she also has some fun — morally suspect fun, sure, but nonetheless a scenario that shows Falco getting it on with another adult, often, another fairly rare sight on TV. "There was no agenda to sexualizing her or not," Brixius said. "That was a part of her that she was expressing herself."
The critical consensus on the first season of Nurse Jackie seemed to be that it had a lot of promise but would need to override its occasional camp and lack of subtlety. The second season offers the writers a chance to build on that promise. This, again, goes back to the more patient conditions of cable. By way of comparison, Wallem pointed to NBC. "I happen to think they had one of the best shows on television -– Friday Night Lights Were the ratings terrible? Fine, but they didn't give it the chance. They don't know how to have patience. They're just so afraid. It's no exaggeration to say that one episode on and you're canceled."
In fact, Nurse Jackie is considered a success, with four million viewers an episode, according to the Journal. Regardless, Wallem said, "There's no gun to our head. There's no fear."
Related: Showtime's Bad Girls Make Good [WSJ]