"Nurse Jackie," the much-buzzed-about half-hour medical comedy starring Edie Falco, premieres tonight, following, in what has become a Showtime launch tradition, the season premiere of the perennially great "Weeds."
Pot mom meet Oxy-mom. Just ask multiple-personality mom ("United States of Tara") to slide a little closer to I-married-a-serial-killer mom ("Dexter") and all those overdressed bear-me-a-son-or-you're-dead moms ("The Tudors"). But watch out for depressive-sex-addict dad ("Californication"); he's all hands.
Seriously, Showtime, is there something you need to share with the group?
Actually, compared to her peers, Jackie Peyton is a paragon of normalcy. First off, she's played by Falco, with a new love-it-or-hate-it boyish haircut, who could bring a no-nonsense warmth to Lizzie Borden.
Jackie's also a wife, mother and highly competent ER nurse, the kind who knows more than most of the doctors and knows she knows more than most of the doctors. She talks tough -- "I don't do chatty," she informs her new and fluttery first-year resident Zoey (Merritt Wever). "Quiet and mean; those are my people" -- but only to hide her tender underbelly. When no one is looking, she's good with kids, the elderly and anyone with a secret.
She has plenty of those herself. Nurse Jackie makes it through the day by snorting and ingesting a variety of uppers and downers, which she acquires via an affair she's having with the hospital pharmacist Eddie, played by Paul Schulze. (I know, I know, he also played the priest with whom Falco's Carmela Soprano had a chaste dalliance, but that is the only reference to "The Sopranos" you are going to get. She's moved on, people, let's move with her.)
Although their relationship seems one of friendly convenience rather than any great passion, it's still a shock when we first meet Jackie's lovely young daughters and handsome, helpful bar-owning husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) who, of course, knows nothing of the drugs or their source. The drug-addicted adultery aside, they form a refreshingly normal family, which is to say, overworked, often anxious, neither rich nor picturesquely poor.
That creators Evan Dunsky, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem refuse to be coy about Jackie's double life of work and home -- she rises pre-dawn to prepare sweetener packets filled with ground-up oxy and slips off her wedding ring each day as she enters the hospital -- manages to (barely) separate "Nurse Jackie" from the slew of psychologically damaged antiheroes that currently fill the airwaves.
Jackie is, of course, a rule-breaker, surrounded by some familiar friends and foils: the fascist administrator (Anna Deavere Smith), the stylishly narcissistic best friend Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best doing a sort of High British "Sex and the City" thing), the hand- some and callow Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli), the aforementioned sweet and babbling Zoey and two funny male nurses who are both, not surprisingly, gay.
As often happens on medical shows, the patients exist mainly to illuminate various facets of the cast's personalities (although an early plot involving a former nurse is astonishingly good) and to show how often nurses are pushed aside even when they are the most senior, and smartest, people in the room. (See also "HawthoRNe," which premieres on TNT on June 16.)
But if the setup is a bit predictable, the characters the actors conjure are not. Smith brings a pearl-wearing canniness to her uptight administrator, Best's O'Hara is a witty breath of over-the-top chick-lit opulence fighting a surgeon's exhaustion, and Wever's Zoey is just delightful, a perfect contrast to the compact, compressed and battened-down Jackie.
Whom Falco makes 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.
Over on "Weeds," Mary-Louise Parker's Nancy Botwin is another more-than-slightly flawed maternal figure, but the similarity stops there. Curvy where Jackie is taut, dreamy where Jackie is focused, Nancy is high on nothing but her own conflicting emotions and porcelain hotness and has more in common with, say, Anne Boleyn.