“Nurse Jackie,” the much-buzzed-about half-hour medical comedy starring Edie Falco, premieres tonight, following, in what has become a Showtime launch tradition, the season premiere of the perennially great “Weeds.”

Pot mom meet Oxy-mom. Just ask multiple-personality mom (“United States of Tara”) to slide a little closer to I-married-a-serial-killer mom (“Dexter”) and all those overdressed bear-me-a-son-or-you’re-dead moms (“The Tudors”). But watch out for depressive-sex-addict dad (“Californication”); he’s all hands.

Seriously, Showtime, is there something you need to share with the group?

Actually, compared to her peers, Jackie Peyton is a paragon of normalcy. First off, she’s played by Falco, with a new love-it-or-hate-it boyish haircut, who could bring a no-nonsense warmth to Lizzie Borden.


Jackie’s also a wife, mother and highly competent ER nurse, the kind who knows more than most of the doctors and knows she knows more than most of the doctors. She talks tough -- “I don’t do chatty,” she informs her new and fluttery first-year resident Zoey (Merritt Wever). “Quiet and mean; those are my people” -- but only to hide her tender underbelly. When no one is looking, she’s good with kids, the elderly and anyone with a secret.

She has plenty of those herself. Nurse Jackie makes it through the day by snorting and ingesting a variety of uppers and downers, which she acquires via an affair she’s having with the hospital pharmacist Eddie, played by Paul Schulze. (I know, I know, he also played the priest with whom Falco’s Carmela Soprano had a chaste dalliance, but that is the only reference to “The Sopranos” you are going to get. She’s moved on, people, let’s move with her.)

Although their relationship seems one of friendly convenience rather than any great passion, it’s still a shock when we first meet Jackie’s lovely young daughters and handsome, helpful bar-owning husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) who, of course, knows nothing of the drugs or their source. The drug-addicted adultery aside, they form a refreshingly normal family, which is to say, overworked, often anxious, neither rich nor picturesquely poor.

That creators Evan Dunsky, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem refuse to be coy about Jackie’s double life of work and home -- she rises pre-dawn to prepare sweetener packets filled with ground-up oxy and slips off her wedding ring each day as she enters the hospital -- manages to (barely) separate “Nurse Jackie” from the slew of psychologically damaged antiheroes that currently fill the airwaves.

Jackie is, of course, a rule-breaker, surrounded by some familiar friends and foils: the fascist administrator (Anna Deavere Smith), the stylishly narcissistic best friend Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best doing a sort of High British “Sex and the City” thing), the hand- some and callow Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli), the aforementioned sweet and babbling Zoey and two funny male nurses who are both, not surprisingly, gay.

As often happens on medical shows, the patients exist mainly to illuminate various facets of the cast’s personalities (although an early plot involving a former nurse is astonishingly good) and to show how often nurses are pushed aside even when they are the most senior, and smartest, people in the room. (See also “HawthoRNe,” which premieres on TNT on June 16.)


But if the setup is a bit predictable, the characters the actors conjure are not. Smith brings a pearl-wearing canniness to her uptight administrator, Best’s O’Hara is a witty breath of over-the-top chick-lit opulence fighting a surgeon’s exhaustion, and Wever’s Zoey is just delightful, a perfect contrast to the compact, compressed and battened-down Jackie.

Whom Falco makes utterly believable as a highly functioning (and obsessively controlled) drug addict. Here is a woman who has so successfully compartmentalized her life that it is possible for her to hold cellphones on which her husband and her lover are calling, to either side of her head and issue a general “can’t talk now, love ya” before rushing off to tend to a patient.

Funny, yes, but in a revelatory way. It is not unusual for a working mother to view every relationship in her life as simply a matter of fulfilling the next indicated task, but I don’t think it has ever been so wonderfully, and painfully, captured on television before.


Nancy’s plight

Over on “Weeds,” Mary-Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin is another more-than-slightly flawed maternal figure, but the similarity stops there. Curvy where Jackie is taut, dreamy where Jackie is focused, Nancy is high on nothing but her own conflicting emotions and porcelain hotness and has more in common with, say, Anne Boleyn.

When last we saw our favorite drug dealer, she was facing execution at the hands of her lover, Esteban Reyes (Demian Bichir), the drug lord/Mexican mayor she had (partially) betrayed by becoming an FBI informant. He slapped down a photo of her conversing with an agent, she slapped down a photo of a sonogram. “It feels like a boy,” she said with that small, secret, Mary-Louise Parker smile.

As Season 5 opens, it becomes increasingly clear that she will be safe as long as the baby is indeed a boy, Reyes’ and viable. Several other plot lines begin to unfold -- Andy (Justin Kirk) takes Shane (Alexander Gould) to live with Nancy’s sister, Jill (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and that does not go smoothly. Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Doug (Kevin Nealon) attempt to set up a medicinal marijuana business, and neither does that. Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) has been kidnapped by a rebel leader and his abusive girlfriend who quickly realize their mistake.


All are funny and smart in a very “Weeds”-ian way, but the Nancy situation is increasingly dark and more than a little troubling, as is the erotic but sadistic sex between her and Esteban. Whether dominant/submissive setups are really controlled by the bottom or the top is a matter of debate, but the whole concept of a woman’s life being preserved and controlled for vessel-like purposes takes the show into dangerous waters. Admirable, but dangerous.

“Weeds” has always walked a fine line between strange-but-loving parenting and call-social-services-now abuse. The idea that Nancy might love a man whom she seriously fears would harm not only her but her children, well, that’s a situation that’s going to require some pretty sophisticated plot twists to resolve.

I can’t wait. Creator Jenji Kohan has kept it all going so far, the supporting cast remains the funniest on TV, and Parker, with her carefully calculated stillness and sudden reckless displays of fearlessness, is more riveting than ever.

Because, as Showtime knows only too well, nothing keeps us glued to the screen like a totally whacked-out mom.



‘Nurse Jackie’

Where: Showtime

When: 10:30 tonight

Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and sex)




Where: Showtime

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)