You Should Be Watching, Vol. 1: “Nurse Jackie”

While critics herald shows like HomelandMasters of Sex, and (inexplicably) Ray Donavan as the crown jewels in Showtime’s line-up, Nurse Jackie  has quietly established itself as the best comedy on the network and very likely one of the best shows you’re not watching.  This past Sunday, Showtime debuted the sixth season premiere of its dark comedy alongside the seventh (and final) season premiere of Californication.  Neither of these shows put up big numbers, even by Showtime’s admittedly lower ratings standards, but while the latter has been in a steady decline for awhile now, Nurse Jackie continues to improve, which in and of itself qualifies as a small miracle.

Let’s just say it.  Showtime’s track record of sustaining its comedies deep into their lives has not been the best, whether that meant beating a beloved show to death (see: Weeds), axing it before it had the chance to build a sufficient audience (see: Huff), or completely failing to capitalize on its premise and cast (see: House of Lies).  With Nurse Jackie already renewed for a seventh season and its quality seemingly untarnished, that–at least–requires more than a perfunctory mention.  Nay, ’tis a cause for celebration!  Huzzah!

I’m going to be honest: I love this show to pieces, and it’s one of those series I genuinely look forward to each spring.  The other is this little show you might have heard of called Game of Thrones.  Pretty impressive company, don’t you think?

Sunday’s opener found Jackie Peyton once again at the mercy of her drug addiction, and despite the inevitability of this, the show continues to find new ways to make her addiction compelling.  For starters, there have been–and will no doubt continue to be–real, tangible consequences to Jackie’s actions.  At the end of last season, she conceded full custody of her two daughters (Grace and  Fiona) to her husband, Kevin.  But even more alarming is Grace’s own struggle with addiction, a habit she picked up from Mommy Dearest.  I loved the cross-cutting employed in that opening sequence; as Jackie clandestinely scored drugs from her gym’s towel girl, we watched Fiona’s dalliance with powder unfold in a powerful and quietly damning way for this frustrating anti-hero.  She’s been a disarming and fascinating centerpiece to this show all along, and it seems like Nurse Jackie has found new ways to deepen her.

Jackie’s addiction has, of course, grounded this series since its inception, but it became increasingly evident over the years that drugs were the least of her worries.  Ms. Peyton’s true addiction is deception.  For much of the show’s earlier run, Jackie had to hide the truth of her usage and her infidelity, and she felt the rush of maintaing those lies.  This year, however, her manipulation of the truth comes branded as a horse of an entirely different color.

Now, she has to play the role of the recovering addict for the likes of her family and friends, so hear her roar!  Except of course, she’s still sneaking out of AA meetings to swallow handfuls of pills and hiding her stash behind the kitchen light switch plate.  The thought of Jackie now having to balance that external representation of herself as a reformed addict with her private reality of ongoing addiction will no doubt prove fascinating.  Plus, homegirl’s got a legit sponsor, played by Julie White (who you might remember as annoying the ever-loving crap out of you as Six Feet Under‘s Mitzi Dalton Huntley).  A self-professed loudmouth, something tells me Jackie’s sponsor will see right through her lying before too long.

I dug the water motif throughout the premiere as well: Jackie as a swimmer bookending the episode, while a perspective shot from a sinkful of water grounded the middle stretch.  While not original, the ablutionary symbolism of Jackie’s rebirth into a new breed of liar seems particularly relevant by the episode’s end.  When Jackie learns her drug supplier’s been fired for, ya know, supplying drugs to members, Jackie stares into the myriad reflections of herself, as if drowning in a sea of her various identities: nurse, mother, addict, liar.  The list, like those reflections, seems to stretch forever.  If that shot taught us anything, it’s this: Jackie hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.  Oh boy.

Nurse Jackie also earns big bonus points for featuring the beyond-superlative amazingness that is (#EmmyWinner) Merritt Wever’s Zoe.  Seriously, nobody on television slides across a floor in a rolly chair like Ms. Wever.  I love her so much, even though I wish they gave her more to do than flit into and out of relationships.  Still, I’ll endure that because her friendship with Jackie is one of the funniest female pairings on television.

And that’s to mention nothing of the phenomenal gallery of supporting characters: lovable goofball Dr. Cooper (whose impending fortieth birthday fills him with existential dread), uber-administrator extraordinaire Gloria Akalitus, ER chief (and Zoe’s not so secret bedroom companion) Dr. Prentiss, pill dispensary and veritable horn dog Eddie, and let’s not forget–though how could we?–the diabetic, football-loving male nurse Thor. It’s a kooky clan for sure, but All Saints Hospital, and television itself, wouldn’t be the same without them.

Even if you’ve never caught an episode of Nurse Jackie, don’t let that  stop you from jumping in now.  You’ll pick it up immediately and likely fall for it just as quickly. With its excellent characters, sharp writing, and nuanced performances, Nurse Jackie is one show you most definitely should be watching.

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