Being a show filmed in New York, Nurse Jackie has an asset in its access to the New York theater world. Mostly, what this means is that you can count on even the smallest guest roles being cast with seasoned professionals with reasonably unfamiliar faces. Every so often, though, an episode actually feels like a little piece of Off-Broadway theatre delivered in the course of half an hour of premium cable. This can be exciting and still feel more than a little off. Tonight, the show tries to do something that a lot of people in Hollywood were trying to do some 20 years ago, before most of them went on to develop other hobbies. It tries to utilize the distinctive personality and talents of Rosie Perez in a prominent, scripted role. I did not come here to knock Rosie Perez, exactly. She was in some good movies during her early-’90s heyday, and she was fine in them, sure. Still, when I think of the name “Rosie Perez,” I have to confess that the first thing that always comes to mind is the ear-piercing shriek she once blasted into my headphones, when she was on the radio with Howard Stern, who was trying to get her to open up about rumors that she was romantically involved with some unnamed major figure in the Latin-American music community, and she kept dodging the questions until Stern finally asked her, “Is he in Menudo?” Talking about her own romantic history, her character on Nurse Jackie says that her last boyfriend “says that dating me is like dating an opera.” Well, yeah.
She plays Jules, who is brought into All Saint’s by the cops who reported to the scene after she’d smacked a clerk at Whole Foods. Nobody wants to press charges, because Jules appears to be hugely pregnant. This naturally arouses the concern of everyone involved, especially the not-yet-visibly pregnant O’Hara and Jackie, who is still grappling with issues related to her own parenting skills and her daughter Grace. The mood shifts quickly when O’Hara insists on running an Ultrasound and discovers that Jules isn’t pregnant after all; her midsection is distended because of the inoperable, “benign but deadly” tumors that have been growing inside her for three years. Dennis Potter used to talk in interviews about how he’d given the cancer that ultimately killed him the name “Rupert,” after Murdoch, and how knowing that Rupert would die with him cheered him up a bit. Jules, having no political axe to grind, refers to her tumors as “my slow-moving monsters,” and points them out this way: “This one is Alien, and the one sticking out here, that’s Predator.”
If that isn’t enough to tip you off that Jules is conceived as an earthy life force of a woman, using vulgarity, energy, and humor to give Death the finger, then Perez’s performance is designed to tattoo it on your eyeballs. (Yes, she also has an actual tattoo, and a speech explaining its significance.) She even has that most shameless and convenient of devices attached to dying characters, a bucket list, which is why she got into trouble at Whole Foods: Item number six is, “Punch Brad in produce for being such a dickbag.” By the time she gets to number seven, “Throw a drink at anyone who gives me shit about drinking”—”That’s gonna start as soon as I get out of here. It’s gonna be fun.”—she’s turned into one of those characters whose high-stepping determination to live life to the fullest can make you wish you were hanging out with the coma patients. Her condition is, of course, a sick joke: People see the evidence that she’s dying and mistake it for a sign that she’s full of life. Then, because they think she’s pregnant, they disapprove of her rowdy, pleasure-seeking behavior, which is the real proof that she is indeed full of life. “What’s really funny,” she says, “is when you’re riding the subway with a malt liquor in one hand and a cigarette in the other,” and start noticing the disapproving looks. On the other hand, looking pregnant is apparently a license to assault the staff in grocery stores, so maybe it all evens out.
Perez’s big number dominates, or at least eats up a big chunk of, an episode that resonates beautifully in a number of smaller, quieter exchanges, notably Kevin going to Eddie to try and better understand who he’s really been married to all these years (“So, you were her drug dealer?”), and O’Hara and Akalitus rising in celebration when Jackie announces that she’s going to an AA meeting. (The meeting itself is blighted by the presence of a drugged-out Charlie, who seems to have come so that he can heckle the speakers.) The biggest news comes early on, when Grace informs her mother, in front of both her sister and Zoe, that she knows Jackie has been in rehab. (How does she know? How do you think? She Googled the address after Jackie’s stupid call to O’Hara to arrange a visit. The Internet has gone a long way toward saving us from the days when characters in a play or a TV show who needed to learn something they weren’t supposed to know tended to be lousy with servants or friends who spent a lot of time pressing their ears to the wall.) “Would you like to talk about it?” Jackie asks, when she’s gotten over the shock. Grace would not, though Zoe allows as how she’d love to. “I saw you every day,” she laments, “and know nothing.” Jackie breaks it to her that she’s an exceptionally good liar. She is, but her changed circumstances are forcing her to try to find new ways to deal with her problems, and so far, she’s falling short. Even humor may no longer be her friend. When she asks O’Hara what she can do to help Grace deal with what she knows, O’Hara replies, “Has she seen Trainspotting?” It’s a funny line, but also kind of sad. By the time the episode has run its course, even O’Hara has had the sense of humor beaten right out of her.
- I've lived in New York, I've shopped at Whole Foods, and I've probably met Brad in produce. So it's not as if I'm unsympathetic.
- The medical emergency of the week is a depressed guy who fears that he may have injured his penis from having masturbated too aggressively, because his newly prescribed Zoloft deadens the sensation. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen something very much like this on a different show recently, but I can’t think of the particulars. After recent episodes of The Amazing Race and Smash, I’m just grateful that we seem to have safely made it past the recent “Let’s humiliate the cast by staging a Bollywood number!” mini-trend.