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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Nurse Jackie: "When The Saints Go"

Illustration for article titled Nurse Jackie: "When The Saints Go"
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(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)

Every now and then, I wonder if I am unfair to Nurse Jackie. I often find myself dropping into the discussion threads on Phil’s reviews to try to better understand those (including Phil) who enjoy the show, and I often kind myself agreeing with the many of their points. Edie Falco is a great actress! Merrit Wever is delightful in a myriad of ways! Why, I don’t even remember why I had such issues with the show!

And then, often in those same discussion threads, I discover the reasons why I stopped watching the show back in season two (although I’ve been following the storyline, if that’s what one would call it, since that point). More than any other Showtime series about a self-destructive protagonist and the people who keep tolerating their behavior because there wouldn’t be a show otherwise, Nurse Jackie contains numerous irreconcilable elements that will never be in harmony with one another outside of rare moments of calm between forced plot machinations. As much as I might like Edie Falco’s performance, and as much enjoyment as I might derive from Merrit Wever’s Zoey, the fact remains that the show needed to be massively retooled following an uneven first season and has instead fallen into the same “rinse and repeat” strategy that damaged Weeds and (for me at least) killed Californication early in their runs.

Yes, the truth is that I do not particularly enjoy this show, and from reading the comments I know that there are some who occasionally feel the same. I want to try to voice at least some of my frustration with the show’s formula before tackling the episode itself, and I also want to emphasize that this whole “Second Opinion” week is about exploring the diverse perspectives that this form of critical writing can offer. That does mean it will be a while before I get to “When the Saints Go” itself, but the midseason point seems a good time to consider the big picture regardless of the ongoing project here at The A.V. Club. Next week, Phil will be back to take you into the back half of the season, and I’m guessing that those who are still enjoying the show will be very glad for his return.

I think my skepticism surrounding Nurse Jackie stems from the fact that I firmly believe the show will never be willing to make the kind of dramatic changes necessary to properly sell its anti-heroic elements. By treating Jackie’s home life as a simple plot point early in the show’s life, and focusing most of its attention on what is basically a slightly off-kilter medical procedural, the show created an environment where Jackie can never fall so far as to be entirely ostracized from her job. While shows like Weeds and United States of Tara focus largely on the impact of self-destructive behavior on a domestic unit, Nurse Jackie uses the domestic as just another ball that Jackie has to juggle, alongside her addiction, her employment, her adultery, her friendships, etc. And what has become clear over two and a half seasons is that every time Jackie throws those balls into the air, the one which involves the majority of characters on the show (employment) is going to have to be caught, even if that would logically be the first one to fall in such a circumstance.

I actually think Nurse Jackie would be a sustainable and interesting series if the show were capable of subtlety in dealing with its dramatic and comedic elements. In the Showtime dramedy mode, everything needs to be “extreme”: Jackie’s self-destruction needs to ramp up into potentially show-changing cliffhangers, and Gloria Akalitis’ adventures need to devolve into utter wackiness. The reason Merrit Wever’s Zoey is the show’s highlight is that she bridges the gap, the one character that manages to feel like a real human being while also allowed to be clever and funny (and yes, occasionally a little silly). And yet the show doesn’t seem to think that this is a balance issue, content to keep repeating the same formula and reaching the same extremes as if the tonal incongruity of it all is charming instead of obnoxious.


In truth, “When the Saints Go” is not nearly as offensive as the show at its most extreme. Compared to the last time I watched regularly, Akalitis was dialed down nicely (if almost entirely marginalized) in the continuation of the plot from last week regarding the removal of religious imagery from the chapel. And while Jackie’s storyline does feature some tremendously hokey use of internet history subterfuge that is likely foreshadowing some predictable tomfoolery in subsequent episodes, for the most part she sits quietly and ponders her predicament (still sneaking drugs, still sort of hung up on Eddie, etc.) instead of actively self-destructing. If there is ever an episode to indicate that Nurse Jackie can truly be a balanced show about a troubled woman administering care to others while ignoring her own needs, this might well be it.

Unfortunately, while Merrit Wever continues to delight in every scene, the fact of the matter is that this version of Nurse Jackie is enormously dull. It’s not that “nothing happened”: Organized as it is around a set of characters that populate a hospital, the show doesn’t need major character-driven plot events to be eventful. However, of the storylines introduced, nothing was truly developed: Kelly’s arrival points towards future conflict but offers little more than a bonus for fans of The Wire (Chris!), the three patients (gunshot wound with the hots for Lenny, fake rib injury bro for Coop to bond with, old woman who just wants a drink and for women to stop wearing pants and getting men’s haircuts) accomplished little, and the family side of things was one of those tricks that procedurals use when they want to convince you they have serialized elements. By putting some continuity into the beginning and the end of an episode, the show makes you think that you just watched a detailed character study, when all you really watched was a set of largely unconnected procedural storylines soundtracked with some of the most obnoxious, on-the-nose original music this side of Grey’s Anatomy.


What’s funny is that I would actually be more likely to watch this show if it were an hour long and dropped the pay cable “darkness” in favor of embracing its lighthearted yet grounded aesthetic. Based on the middle section of this episode, that’s where the showrunners’ minds are at anyways: between the random dog (to go along with last week’s random rat), to the on-the-nose use of patients who conveniently intersect with each character’s personal situation, and the general “quirkiness” of a character like Zoey, this might as well be “Jackie’s Anatomy.” Of course, the other sections of the episode return to that Showtime stand-by, as the self-destructive protagonist sneaks pills and lies to the people she loves.

However, in truth these two sides of the show are more similar than one might think. Early in “When the Saints Go,” Kevin bangs a baseball bat on the bar to startle two hooligans tussling with one another, and after they scurry off he goes up to his daughters to explain that “I wasn’t going to hit ‘em — I was just trying to scare ‘em.” In this attempt at alleviating his daughter’s worst fears, he encapsulated my frustration with this show: I never feel that the “plot” being presented has any chance of actually doing any damage. Just as Kevin was never going to really hit those hooligans with a baseball bat, the show is never going to allow Jackie to truly hit rock bottom out of fear of disturbing the rest of the series (which so rarely connects with Jackie’s drama). It is a show doomed to mediocrity by its very premise, saddling some fine performers with a tonally inconsistent, muddled, and dull series that fakes its way into high stakes drama twice a year before backing away at the last moment.


I am fine with a show being procedural on a week-to-week basis: I have nothing against the form, and particularly enjoy seeing it played with in a pay cable space. However, the larger problem is that the serial elements seem just as stale as the procedural ones, with the show playing more or less the same beats they played back in season one. Even without watching regularly since the second season premiere I felt like I missed absolutely nothing while watching “When the Saints Go,” despite the fact that I clearly actually missed things. Kevin knows that Jackie was at least at some point addicted to painkillers, but that knowledge has been swept under the rug to allow the show to keep operating as if nothing ever happened. This normalcy is an illusion within the narrative, but more importantly it’s an illusion the show perpetuates to avoid making any real changes, and whatever narrative meaning it might have had back in season one has evaporated by season three; all that’s left behind now is a sign of stagnancy and a one-way ticket to the reset button at the start of next season (should the show be renewed, of course).

And not even my love for Merrit Wever can make me suffer that frustration weekly.


Stray Observations

  • Nurse Jackie continues to have the most obnoxious credit sequence on television, only calling attention to the consistent reduction of the show down to a limiting base premise. I thought maybe I would like it better after having avoided it for so long, but no: It still rankles.
  • Those credits are becoming more meaningful now that the show is making an interesting play against the religious images prominent within the sequence. That’s actually something I’m very curious about, which is why the complete lack of any narrative function offered by the removal of the paintings/statues was a big disappointment.
  • Do you know what kills an emotionally meaningful storyline dead? Having the character at the center of it spend the next episode whining about it. I like Peter Facinelli well enough, but that just went nowhere.
  • “She looks like someone who gives ear drops to old cats.”
  • “Finally, a woman who’s not wearing trousers.”
  • And now, Zoey’s Greatest Hits:
  • “I will take him out back and school him.”
  • “We could be neibs!”
  • “I’m not rich, but that was rude of him.”
  • “The eagle flies at dawn. No, I was just…spy talk?”
  • “Give me what the lady had…no. Got any Sour Patch Kids?”