Shutting Off Nurse Jackie

A few months ago I wrote that I’d take another look at Nurse Jackie, a ShowTime series about a drug-addicted ER nurse and mother. The posters, featuring Edie Falco as the program’s heroine, caught my eye; she’d charmed me in her previous role, as Carmela Soprano. Besides, this story’s set in NYC. The hospital is vaguely-modeled upon St. Vincent’s Medical Center, a recently-shuttered Catholic Hospital in Greenwich Village.

Out of some sense of compulsion, wanting to provide careful follow-up to my readers, I forced myself to watch each episode before completing this review. Unfortunately I found the series so unpleasant, besides uninteresting, that it took me months to plod through my assignment.

Jackie is supposed to be a crackerjack nurse who has some serious problems including drug addiction. That premise might be fair enough, in a House-like way, if her life-saving skills had unique value. But they don’t: the underlying problem with this show is that Jackie has no exceptional or redeeming qualities as a nurse. Sure, she cares about some of her patients, but that’s nothing extraordinary. Rather, she stands out by lying, making up results and, not infrequently, cutting out when and where she’s needed.

The emergency department where Jackie works is supervised by a not-quite indifferent administrator portrayed disappointingly by Anna Deavere Smith, whose real talents reach far beyond the realm of the petty disputes and not-unusual life issues that plague this TV hospital’s staff.

As a physician-blogger who’s trying to understand the potential value of Twitter in health care, I thought perhaps I might learn from the show’s ER doc Cooper’s social media skills: he tweets while working, nominally as a physician. But he’s presented as such a vain, stupid twit that he’s just not credible as a doctor of any kind. Even his Tourette’s tics are adolescent – he grabs women’s breasts when stressed, a curious behavior that seems, if anything, to suit the show’s shallow drama more than any real patient’s disease.

Plenty of TV shows have offered insights on health care delivery by quirky, self-absorbed and sometimes-deluded workers with interpersonal issues and stress (think M*A*S*H, for starters). But this series doesn’t make that grade. There’s no adult humor, no attempt at medical mystery-solving or even a good, old-fashioned medical ethics quandary. Unlike the Sopranos‘ story, here most of the characters bear little depth. Jackie’s multiple psychopathologies are a vile, exaggerated example of a woman juggling too many things, badly.

So I was surprised to find out that Jackie’s contract was renewed. Even more, I wish that the real St. Vincent’s Hospital, which once provided care to me and, over the years, helped countless other real New Yorkers, were still open.

I won’t revisit this show. But I’m looking forward to The Big C, which starts on Monday. Hopefully that will deliver better entertainment, or at least some fresh ideas.

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  • I work in medicine and I’ve managed to enjoy Nurse Jackie so far. I had no trouble guessing (correctly) that the showrunners are lesbians–from watching the show. There really isn’t a likable straight male in any episode. All non-gay men are portrayed as idiots, vain, clueless, selfish and so on. Only gays and females are nice. Jackie has a husband, and while he’s pretty harmless, he’s pretty much there for her to have a husband. He’s someone to be cheated on. He owns and runs a bar, which means his level of education (and intelligence) doesn’t come close to Jackie’s. The writers go far out of their way to show us that women can treat (straight) men any old way they choose. Jackie’s doctor friend sleeps with a good-looking male nurse, then cold-shoulders him. Zoey slaps the same male nurse for God-only-knows what mild remark. No one likes the hot male ER doc…and he has no mentors around to help him learn doctoring. Zoey, on the other hand, is female. So she starts off very green, but learns quickly to be a fine nurse. Dr. Cooper is male. He’s not going to improve his medical skills or personality. He’s frozen in place: Male. No good. This show reminds me of a few movies that had the same setup of men = bad, women = good. Rewatch Sling Blade, Thelma and Louise, Silence of the Lambs. Same thing. Pretty juvenile, but there are lots of women and gay people to love this stuff to death.

  • John,
    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I guess I missed that, so to speak. Still I think the show’s creators need to change its premise (that Jackie’s a good nurse despite all her failings), or else present her as a better nurse than she appears, or cancel. Different strokes…

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