I was Addicted to a Show About Addiction
I just spent a grueling two weeks watching seven seasons of "Nurse Jackie". Yes, the show ate all my free time. Yes, I stopped seeing sunlight. Yes, I wept at the finale which I stayed up til 5am to watch. And yet, I urge you all to go watch it immediately. Drop what you are doing and go. Are you done? Good.
Edie Falco as Nurse Jackie
One could say I was addicted to the show, which ironically is what the show is about. It follows the life of Jackie Peyton, an ER nurse who has taken to abusing opioid painkillers and uses an increasingly complicated web of lies and sociopathic behavior to keep her addiction under wraps. It would be easy to draw parallels from this show to real life, what with the painkiller and heroin epidemic ravaging the country, but I think we'll keep it light for today and focus instead on what quality television like "Nurse Jackie" can teach us about what we need from entertainment.
It is so often said that we are in the "Golden Era" of television. There are more critically lauded shows than ever and the line between movie star and t.v. star is slowly being blurred, with famous actors like Kevin Spacey joining "House of Cards" and lesser known actors like Jason Momoa jumping from "Stargate Atlantis" and "Game of Thrones" to the new "Aquaman" franchise. With all this "golden" this and "famous" that, one would think our entertainment would be enjoyable to watch, that it might be life affirming or perhaps even fun. It is not.
Batfleck will be the end of us all
The "Golden Era" has corresponded with the rise of the gritty, realistic everything. Superheroes are no longer allowed to smile on the big screen or the small one. People who are making power plays or having affairs on television aren't being replaced by their evil, mustachioed twins, but they are hiding their wrong doing with the panache of a highly trained spy. Characters' every action or reaction is heightened to the breaking point and everything leads to dire circumstances. Some may argue this is the way entertainment works, to take us out of our day-to-day grind we need to be stimulated by drama and emotional overload. I disagree, and this brings me back to "Nurse Jackie".
Jackie Peyton is certainly no saint (though she does work at All Saints Hospital), but she is no sinner either. What drew me to the show so strongly is that I came to see her as a real person and was invested in her life. Part of what the show does so well is that it allows the audience to understand that Jackie's addiction is a disease. Her actions are measured in order to feed her addiction while she balances being an excellent nurse, wife, and mother. Jackie's actions do have consequences, but they are realistic ones that necessarily follow the logic of her addiction.
The logic of my addiction
While Jackie's light and dark fight it out inside of her, the ensemble cast with her in the ER is equally perfect. We are introduced to the effervescent nurse-in-training Zoe Barkow (who is my favorite character on any show I have ever seen), the stern but kindly administrator Gloria Akalitus, and the huge yet gentle nurse Thor, to name a few. These characters become fully rounded throughout the series' seven season run, and their own stories become important in finding the balance between light and dark in the story's overarching project, dealing with Jackie's disease.
"Nurse Jackie" feels like it could breathe. There are moments of levity and tragedy perfectly counterposed in each episode, and though the writing and directing chairs change hands throughout the seasons, there is a consistent level of excellence to be found throughout. "Nurse Jackie" could have been either handwringing and moralistic or gritty and overwrought, but it dodges both easy outs to provide something that I had never thought to find on screen, the real, beating heart of a human being and all the pain, love, and joy that it can hold.