My brother has been nagging me for years to watch Nurse Jackie, but I have very firm rules about not starting a series mid-way through and I never quite got round to hunting out the first season either on television or on dvd. Finally though I spotted the first four seasons on LoveFilm instant and I made pretty swift work of powering through all the episodes and then finding season 5 to bring me bang up to date within just a couple of weeks. That in itself pretty much tells you how right my brother was.
I’ll keep the main review pretty spoiler free and generic to the series as a whole, then at the bottom I’ll go into each season in a little more detail, but it’s hard to do that without spoilers, so beware!
The show is (unsurprisingly) about a nurse called Jackie. She’s an excellent nurse who does what she has to do for the good of her patients, but she’s also a drug addict who lies and deceives everyone around her. mostly-functional drug addict. The show is notionally a comedy (and a 1/2 hour one at that), but it’s more a “snorting quietly under your breath at the humour that’s inherent in life” kind of comedy rather than a laughing and jokes kind of one. Really though it’s a pure character study of Jackie, of her interactions with the people around her – family, friends, colleagues and patients. It’s funny because people are generally pretty funny. But it’s also dramatic, tragic, farcical, sweet and sad, because people are all those things too.
The series really is like nothing else I can think of. On occasions I was frustrated at the half hour format, wanting to spend more time with the particular cases of the week, or wanting to see more of the fallout of events, but generally I think the show was far better for its brevity. It has an elegance to it, not a second is wasted explaining something that the audience can easily work out for themselves. Not only does it obey the rule to “show don’t tell” but it excels in the secondary rule of “imply don’t show”.
For a show built entirely around one character it’s a credit to the writers that I love the show even though I don’t actually particularly like the central character. She’s a stunningly complex and fascinating character, and one that I would very much want to be my nurse, but I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, and I’d be very nervous of getting on her bad side if I were a colleague. The writers make brave choices to not soften the character or have her make the ‘right’ decisions and Edie Falco is phenomenal at playing her.
In this kind of character study though, the supporting cast hold equal power, bringing out different sides of the character and highlighting the complexity in the way she interacts with each individual. Her friendship with O’Hara (Eve Best) is probably the most honest you see the character with others (although it’s not entirely honest still), and that acceptance of who Jackie is provides a lot of the humour and lightness. Her friendship with Akalitus (the always wonderful Anna Deavere Smith) is more complicated, but as the person with probably the longest history with Jackie, she too is one of the more accepting of who Jackie really is. With Akalitus and O’Hara sitting on either side of her, Jackie is both balanced and challenged constantly. And following in her footsteps is Zoe, as a reflection of who Jackie might once have been, allowing the audience to see which paths can be followed.
I’m less blown away by the male characters sadly. I never found Coop anything other than epically irritating, he remained like a small child with a desperate need to be liked by everyone but an endless ability to destroy relationships through ignorance and thoughtlessness. Kevin and Eddie are both likeable enough, but both struggle to have any character outside their relationships with Jackie, leaving them as appearing rather weak and uninteresting.
It’s an utterly addictive series to watch, I found myself watching half a dozen episodes in a row multiple times, both impressed and entertained and occasionally devastated. It’s also a show that keeps moving, with each season doing something slightly differently. So below are slightly spoilery bits on each of the seasons.
I knew very few of the details of the show going in and that works well. Knowing that Jackie is a drug taking nurse doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of her actions. Likewise the surprises of the relationships she has are delightful and difficult to see. It never pulls punches on the character, never excusing her choices or making her lies and actions easy or without consequences. There were several avoidable plot contrivances which left me frustrated (cutting off a ring and then breaking a finger as an excuse rather than just wrapping the finger in a bandage with the ring still on being a key example), but overall a surprising and excellent first season.
I did miss the character of Mo-Mo, I liked the way he was sort of in between Zoe and Jackie, Thor grew on me though once he started answering back a bit more. I also wasn’t a massive fan of Eddie going all stalkery and desperate, as I mentioned above he just came across as entirely defined by his relationship with Jackie and therefore rather bland and weak. It was however interesting to see Jackie losing control, entertaining when it came to Eddie befriending Kevin, but tougher when it was watching her struggle to understand her daughter’s problems.
There was a deeply frustrating Coop storyline where he once again acted like a child the whole season, upset about his parents’ divorce and desperately engineering a wedding for himself. Jackie meanwhile is rapidly losing control of her lies and her addiction which is hard to watch, but also satisfying. I didn’t really feel sorry for her, she had after all brought all this onto herself, but I also didn’t feel any real satisfaction seeing her gradually lose the trust of her friends and family.
Jackie goes to rehab. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to see that she’d been playing a game all along and deceiving everyone, but as the season went on, it just became more and more real. It was a brave choice for the writers to make, to redefine the show from being about a drug addicted nurse to being about a recovering addict, but it really worked. Less brave was the fact that they followed the unwritten rule that sooner or later every American medical show seems to do a storyline about becoming more like a business, all suits and targets and efficiencies. At least Nurse Jackie brought in Bobby Cannavale to add weight to the story, and it had the unexpected delight of bringing the very best out of Akalitus and her relationships with Jackie and O’Hara. The three women supporting each other through the change of management, rehab and a pregnancy was possibly the high point of the entire series.
Jackie’s now clean, sober and divorced, but more alarmingly – she’s without O’Hara. While I love Jackie’s stronger relationships with Akalitus and Zoe, I really really missed O’Hara and the show really missed her humour. I felt particularly robbed of the opportunity to see O’Hara with baby! Watching Jackie and Kevin try to work out their new relationship was interesting (although sometimes heartbreaking) and I liked the new love interest of Frank and the new honesty Jackie brought to a relationship. Coop continues to be a frustrating character though and the other new doctors didn’t make a very favourable impression either. All my responses and reactions to the season pale into insignificance at the intensity of my emotions during the final few moments. I can’t think of anything else I’ve felt so devastated and overwhelmed by in response to a calm and understated action by a character. I’m both looking forward to, and dreading, season 6.