Thursday, July 2, 2015

Last Days at All Saints': Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco and Tony Shalhoub, in the final season of Showtime's Nurse Jackie.

Tony Shalhoub is a great actor, with an easy mastery of his craft and an ability to instantly connect with an audience that enables him to perform miracles. As the star of the detective series Monk, Shalhoub played a broken man trying to put himself back together, a quiet, recessive man whose grief over the unsolved murder of his wife asserted itself in the form of a steady flood of tics, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. If Adrian Monk had been played by a different actor, it’s likely that he would have worn out his welcome with the audience, but Shalhoub made him funny and touching, and kept doing it, week after week, for an eight-year run. It was a remarkable feat, but before the show had run its course, even a fan could wish that Shalhoub had the chance to take a break from making a potentially annoying character seem charming and instead take a chance on playing one with a presence as big as his talent. In the seventh, concluding season of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, Shalhoub plays Dr. Bernard Prince, who takes over as chief doctor in the ER of Manhattan’s All Saints’ Hospital after the departure of the dim but sweetly well-intentioned Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) and immediately establishes himself as the star of the show.

On M*A*S*H, Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce used to show how much he hated death by banging patients on their chests and yelling, “Don’t let the bastard win!” Shalhoub shows how much Prince hates death by letting you see, with his every gesture and utterance, how deeply involved he is with life, his own and everything going on around him. He marvels at everything anyone tells him or shows him, as if he were Kaspar Hauser only recently freed from imprisonment in a small dark room; then, when the conversation lags, he drops in a casual mention of his own four ex-wives or how stoned he got the last time he saw the Grateful Dead. He makes friends with his patients, as if it were just the logical next step in his relationship with people after he’s seen pictures of what they look like inside, and he flirts with women, including his boss, the hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith), for the fun of it. It’s not as if he’s in the market for a long-term relationship himself; he’s dying of a brain tumor, though he conceals this for as long as he can still be useful in the ER. When he can’t perform medicine anymore, he shows up on the last day before the hospital is set to be shut down, begging to just hang around so he can be part of other people’s lives for a little bit longer, and there’s no pathos in it; it’s not as anyone wouldn’t want him around. If the dolorous sleepwalking on Mad Men and the bug-eyed straining for depth on the current season of True Detective are, as some insist, great acting, what’s the correct term for what Shalhoub does? Moving planets with his mind?

Merritt Wever and Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie.
Will Shalhoub, who won three Emmys for best leading actor on a drama for Monk, win one for his guest performance here? Not that it should matter, but I’d say he has a shot: Nurse Jackie isn’t one of those shows, like The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer in their respective prime, that inspire outraged editorials about how they’re always snubbed by Emmy voters. The show has won Emmys for its star, Edie Falco, and her co-star, the prodigious Merritt Wever, who plays the younger nurse Zoey, as well as nominations for various guest actors. If anything, Nurse Jackie has been snubbed by some critics; it’s never been officially embraced as part of the great ongoing cable renaissance, although for its first four seasons it was arguably the best of Showtime’s crop of dark comedies about misbehaving antiheroes and antiheroines, a grouping that ranges from Weeds (a sharp satire of suburbia that outlived its usefulness by at least a couple of seasons) to the self-satisfied Californication to the stone-boring House of Lies to the downright loathsome Shameless, a depiction of the rampant, bestial criminality of a teeming, low-income Chicago family that’s like a pornographic Claymation version of a Mitt Romney diatribe to his horrified one-percent supporters. Created by Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, who served as showrunners for the first four seasons, and Evan Dunsky (who wrote the pilot episode), Nurse Jackie was originally about how Edie Falco’s Jackie lived a double life, maintaining a home in Queens with a husband and two daughters while blowing off steam at work through an affair with Eddie the pharmacist (Paul Schulze) and a steadily escalating pill habit.

At its best, Nurse Jackie was a challenging show, due to its refusal to either justify or flatly condemn its heroine: the longer it went on, the clearer it became that Jackie was both a dedicated and exceptional nurse who almost single-handedly kept her ER running smoothly, and a despicable person who needlessly caused her friends and family a lot of pain and rewarded their trust by treating them as suckers. This, and the fact that, unlike Tony Soprano, she was a woman, may have been the reason that some avowed believers in radical TV found the show alienating. Things came to a head in the show’s terrific fourth season, when Jackie, having been found out and forced to endure rehab, blew a hole in the rationale for her behavior that viewers had automatically supplied, declaring that she didn’t take drugs and sleep around to escape the horrors and pressures of her work; she did it because, in addition to doing her job well and saving people’s lives, she liked taking drugs and sleeping around. (It had the ring of truth.)

Brixius and Wallem left after that season, and under new showrunner Clyde Phillips, the show began to spin its wheels and went into a ditch: when Jackie, having finally gotten clean, started popping pills again, it didn’t feel like a statement about how hard it is to beat addiction, just an admission from the show’s creative team that they didn’t know how to make a show about a version of this character who wasn’t a lying junkie. Thanks in no small part to Shalhoub, as well as the show’s longtime dependables—a group that includes Wever and Smith as much as Falco—the seventh season marked enough of a recovery to serve as a graceful exit. Fans of the early seasons who’d stopped watching the show might want to check it out. Those who missed the series entirely might want to seize on this as a good moment to catch up.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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