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TV Weekend: Nurse Jackie’s Road to Recovery

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David M. Russell/SHOWTIME

Falco and Cannavale in a scene from season 4.

At some point in the third season of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, I thought I had a sense of what its pattern was going to be from here on out. The show had set up a provocative scenario by focusing on Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco), a sympathetic but often awful person: a devoted professional but a drug addict, a caring mother but a cheating wife, a good friend who could be a selfish user, a principled nurse but a liar. For the first season or so, it was a risky and rewarding dark comedy.

But as is the way with so many shows with “edgy” premises like this, it seemed determined to keep hitting the reset button on Jackie: she would keep cheating and deceiving but always find a way never to get caught, she would stay an addict but never really suffer physical or emotional consequences. There weren’t ultimately consequences for Jackie, which is not to say that I wanted to see her punished but that, as the show contrived one near-miss for her after another, it came to seem like there were no real stakes for her. So although the show had sharp writing and a fantastic cast, by three seasons in, it was a show I was watching entirely for the supporting characters.

The producers may have been thinking the same thing I was thinking, though, because suddenly, come the beginning of this season: boom, consequences. Jackie hit bottom, split up with her husband (who had his own affair), opened up about her addiction and went into rehab. And Falco, who for three years had been doing what she could with Jackie’s sharp-tongued denial, again had a challenge she could do something with, as her character faced a situation where nothing seemed safe: not her family, not her job and maybe not her health.

Nurse Jackie is winding up its fourth season June 17, and if you bailed on it at some earlier point, I recommend going back to the beginning of this season and catching up, because this season’s changes have really invigorated the series. Bobby Cannavale at first seemed a stock bureaucrat-villain as the hospital’s new boss, Dr. Cruz, but he’s proved surprisingly multifaceted, and not just because his son (Cannavale’s son in real life) ended up Jackie’s rehab-mate. (A total contrivance, but one I can excuse because their relationship has worked out so well.) Over time, we’ve come to see that there are reasons for Cruz’s intransigence—and, frankly, Jackie for one can use a hard-headed antagonist who’s immune to her well-developed evasive mechanisms. Jackie becomes a much more interesting person when confronted with someone she can’t manipulate easily (not to mention going up against the structure of rehab, designed to resist con artists).

At the same time, the supporting cast continues to be one of the best in TV comedy. Merritt Wever is commandingly hilarious as the passionate Zoey; Anna Deavere Smith has been able to add depth to Ms. Akalitus (who began as a more one-dimensional adversary) as she’s suffered a demotion; and Peter Facinelli’s Dr. Cooper is not quite like any character I’ve seen on TV—a man who never quite learned properly how to make friends, whose hunger to be liked practically glistens on his skin.

The people around Jackie made me stick with this show even when its main storyline was going nowhere, but now that it’s committed to really engaging with its title character, it’s become appointment TV for me again. Upsetting this show’s stasis has been just what the nurse ordered.