One of the most enjoyable aspects of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” has also turned into the show’s biggest burden as it’s gone into multiple seasons, kicking off its fourth this past Sunday. It’s that the title character (played with both verve and abrasiveness by Edie Falco), a no-nonsense nurse who’s also a secret pill-popper, has always been on the verge of disaster without ever seeming to tumble into it. It’s a pleasurably precarious state that starts to feel stale when there never seem to be permanent consequences — fortunately, the show looks ready to do something about that.
When the series began, Jackie Peyton was enabling her drug addiction (she likes painkillers but will toss back just about anything she can get her hands on) with a convenient affair with the hospital pharmacist Eddie (Paul Schulze), who like the rest of the staff hadn’t been informed about the fact that she’s actually married. Her wheedling of pills from him and from her doctor best friend O’Hara (Eve Best), her stealing of meds whenever possible and her rule-breaking in the name of helping or punishing patients she feels deserve it always seem about to land her in hot water, though she twists out of trouble either through luck or deception.
It’s one of the show’s pleasures, because we like Jackie — she’s funny, brusque and both strong and a total disaster — and we don’t want to watch her crash and burn, wreck her marriage, lose her job or to go from functional addict to all-consuming one. She’s a fundamentally good character who does bad things, and our understanding of that creates a tension every time it seems her actions will catch up with her, because while she needs to pull back we also don’t feel a strong need to see her punished.
But you can’t have character growth without the occasional comeuppance, and with each added complication set to catch Jackie, from the discovery of one of her stashes to a doctor catching on to the fact that pain patches she was supposed to deliver the cancer ward went missing to Eddie befriending her unknowing husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), it’s become harder to stomach the contrivance of her not getting caught, especially as she spent some of the last season trying to get clean on her own.
The first episodes of this new season of “Nurse Jackie” find Jackie at last admitting that the problem is one she can’t deal with by herself. It doesn’t come easily — it takes the death of a stranger she picked up at church and was freebasing with in order to hit rock bottom — but it’s past due.
“Nurse Jackie” hasn’t always found a steady tone to maintain, but it’s always been great at portraying functional addiction, showing how Jackie applies different standards to herself than to those around her, how she tells half-truths to everyone, rationalizing her drug use away as something that helps her be better at her job and that’s a way of managing back pain, how she’s made pill-popping a necessary part of her daily routine.
Last season showed the dislike with which she greeted her troubled older daughter’s request for anti-anxiety medication, though that didn’t stop her from taking all of the girl’s meds at once in a moment of weakness.
But that do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do approach can only last as long as what you’re indulging in is still tolerable to yourself. That shift happens in a darkly tragicomic scenario in which she finds herself, in her own living room in the middle of the night, surrounded by illicit paraphernalia and a corpse. For the first time since season one of the series, there’s a sense of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to Jackie, who’s finally had to admit her weakness to at least a few people in her life. It’s something to look forward to, as are her battles with her counselor (played by Laura Silverman, sister to comedian Sarah), who’s even tougher and less forgiving than the show’s heroine.