Nurse Jackie, reviewed.

What you're watching.
June 4 2009 9:13 PM

Prickliness

Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie.

Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie.
Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie

Because I do not hope to turn again to a show abusing the poetry of T.S. Eliot, I must organize a boycott against the first 75 seconds of the first episode of Nurse Jackie (Showtime, Mondays as 10:30 p.m. ET). Maybe that'll teach a lesson to an offending subgroup of TV writers to not go quoting him like intellectually insecure college freshman, as if they're clutching some high-culture amulet.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

The text at issue in Nurse Jackie, which is a decent show, is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"; the action's in the first stanza. Under true white lamplight in a hazy white room, wearing a pure white uniform, ER nurse Jackie Peyton is spread out against the floor, like a patient (self-)etherized upon a table. In the voice-over, the lady under the lamp remembers that the nun who taught her the poem also told her that the people with the greatest capacities for good also had the greatest capacities for evil. "Smart fuckin' nun," says Jackie, coarse-spoken and fine-tuned for a cynical kind of determinism. Then she jokes about her bad back and rattles the last pill in her orange bottle.

Should we presume that this is a dream sequence? Not quite. The Florence Nightingale reorganized upon the floor, played by Edie Falco, puts enough medicine down the hatch and up the nose that her entire professional life has a dreamlike quality. There's often a bright haze in the focus or a blissed-out amber in the lighting or a night-terror steepness to the angle of the lens. The drugs are a way of never waking up, but still she's never numb. We float along behind her through this comedy of desolation, less tickled by its humor than attracted to its prickliness.

Jackie is the latest of Showtime's Jekyll-and-Hyde heroine-mothers, following Nancy Botwin, the suburbanite pot dealer of Weeds, and the multiple-identity heroine of The United States of Tara. Call them Desperate Working Moms and note that Jackie is the most bitter and hard-boiled yet. Falco wears a haircut that splits the difference between butch and pixie. She's sometimes a devilish androgyne and sometimes—despite energetically prostituting herself to the hospital pharmacist—a workaholic eunuch.

She works at All Saints' Hospital, a name suggesting, once again, that no one in the writers' room is stressed about laying it on too thick. This brings us back to the nuns, who here skitter in and out of the frame like doves. Their wimples, Jackie's anger and lust, the pints of blood spilled on gurneys—the show has the Gothic tinge of a telenovela. There's a severed ear here to rival Blue Velvet's.

We could pivot to discuss the plot, a tidy pile of antics involving a baby-tender nursing student, a steel-cold female physician from the U.K., and Dr. Fletcher Cooper, who is the kind of arrogant ass who tells you to call him Coop. (In a nice casting coup, the actor in the role, Peter Facinelli, looks like a callower version of ER's Noah Wylie.) To the student, Jackie is variously a tough-loving mother hen and just a tough bitch. To the Brit, she is schlumpy lunch companion. To the smarmy doctor, she condescends. The stories are nothing new. But this is a character study, and the pleasures are in the performances, chiefly Falco's as a person more strung-out than Dr. House and more crackling than an impatient diner waitress.

When I say that there's something mechanical to Falco's performance, I intend it as a compliment that points to her low-key way of seeming high-strung and her military bearing gone subtly berserk. She can move like she's imitating a pair of scissors with the screw too tight, and she can snap like a mousetrap at the slightest provocation. "Do you know you're the only sane one there?" one character rhetorically questions Jackie at one point. Yeah, yeah, yeah—we get it. The angel of mercy is an avenging angel is a fallen angel. We've checked into that ward before, but Falco has the strength to sell the overwrought clichés and to force each important moment to its crisis.