“Nurse Jackie” is television’s best Sunday night drama.
Those may be fighting words to the fevered fans of AMC’s “Mad Men,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and CBS’s “The Good Wife,” all currently airing at 9 p.m., comprising perhaps the best programmed hour in modern TV history. It may also be a revelation to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — the folks who give out the Emmys — that nominates the Showtime program in its comedy categories. Despite its 30-minute sitcom length and moments of dark, quirky humor, this show was never intended to be a laugh riot.
Now in its seventh and final season, “Nurse Jackie” stars the astounding Edie Falco as Jackie Peyton, a woman who has all but torched everything she once held dear — her marriage, her relationship with her children and 20-plus years as the best nurse at All Saints, a struggling New York hospital — for her ruinous dependence on prescription drugs. While other fictional television shows have dealt with substance abuse, none have burrowed as long and as deep in exposing the insidious way addiction metastasizes and consumes not just the addict, but also everyone around them. Whether as enablers or collateral damage, no one in Jackie’s wounded world is left unscarred, and it makes for often uncomfortable, but always absorbing viewing.
For years Jackie got high on her hospital’s supply, thanks to an affair with nice-guy, love-struck pharmacist Eddie (Paul Schulze). At home, she has hidden pills in wall outlets, old TV remotes, even her kids’ plastic Easter eggs. She swiped a doctor’s DEA number which allows physicians to call in prescriptions for patients, and used a fake ID to get drugs. While impaired, she almost killed a patient with an overdose of insulin. Time and again, Jackie has gotten clean only to relapse; in the show’s fifth-season finale, she popped a pill just before a ceremony marking a year of sobriety, her eyes glassy and dilated as she blows out a celebratory candle.
Jackie has made a nasty art of deceiving and using those around her, from her understanding supervisor Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) to her loyal protégé and fellow nurse Zoey Barkow (the fantastic Merritt Wever), both of whom have worked to help her get well. She has failed her two daughters, especially her eldest, a surly teenager following in her mother’s narcotized footsteps.
Yet at her best, Jackie is also the nurse you would want should a mishap or dire diagnosis land you in the hospital. She’s smart, tough and compassionate, never hesitating to take on brusque administrators, incompetent doctors, abusive spouses or lousy parents to ensure that her patients receive the best possible care, and that her co-workers are treated with respect. Wisely, the show never lets Jackie’s ER empathy mask the fact that she’s always on the precipice. If there’s a quintessential Jackie moment, it came during season two when she was summoned on the street to help a man having a seizure — then stole a stash of Oxycodone from his coat.
Unlike “Breaking Bad’s” conniving Walter White or “Mad Men’s” mopey Don Draper, Jackie has never been called an antihero by critics. Only misbehaving male TV characters are ever so anointed, as though women aren’t complicated enough to defy light for darkness. In this case, however, that’s a good thing — there’s nothing cool about addiction or admirable about Jackie’s many deceptions. The show’s writers never soft-peddle Jackie’s problems, or try to make her likable. On display each episode is the heartbreak and frustration of loving an addict, and the sting of knowing that their need for drugs may supplant everything else in their lives. It’s a contagion that infects everyone.
What’s also distinctive is that Jackie has no angst-laden backstory to connect the dots to her destructive behavior, no ancient slight or life-altering moment that shadows every misdeed. (When the series began, her addiction was already full-blown.) Jackie’s demons mirror a more distressing everyday reality — nurses struggling with substance abuse. According to the American Nurses Association, at least 10 percent of this nation’s nurses are drug-dependent. A combination of job stress, nagging workplace injuries, long shifts and easy access to drugs is cited for the troubling numbers. All of these issues have been subtly addressed on “Nurse Jackie,” but never as a means to give the titular character any excuses. (And she hasn’t been the show’s only addicted nurse.)
Despite its stellar performances (both Falco and Wever have won Emmys), deft direction and sharp writing, “Nurse Jackie” has been more of a cult favorite than cultural phenomenon. Perhaps that’s due to the discomforting recognition that anyone — and not just nurses — in whom we place our wellbeing might be blasted out of their minds. What’s at stake on “Nurse Jackie” is more than dramatic; it feels real. By comparison, it’s a lot easier to spend a Sunday evening fretting about medieval political machinations, or the midcentury ennui of the upper middle-class white male.
With only a handful of episodes left for “Nurse Jackie,” it’s hard to predict the show’s coda. No one should expect a clean conclusion — that would be contrary to the show’s nature. Even if Jackie can finally and fully commit to her sobriety, temptations will always linger, as they do for anyone in recovery. Yet for a woman like Jackie, and the millions of people her difficult, addicted character represents, even fragile uncertain hope may suffice as a happy ending.
Renee Graham is pop culture correspondent for WBUR’s Here & Now and The ARTery, and was a longtime arts writer and pop culture columnist for the Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter at @reneeygraham.