The first episode of a new series is always a minefield. How do you introduce the main protagonists, set the scene, hint at what you hope will be the show's long and brilliant future and still cram in enough storyline to keep viewers watching until the end? In this regard, perhaps Nurse Jackie
was assisted by its brief 30-minute slot (of which the actual show only filled about 26), since this left no alternative but to focus and trim ruthlessly.
The result was a tantalisingly ambiguous glimpse inside the world of Nurse Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) and her life at New York's All Saints' Hospital,
where she fights for her patients against a bureaucratic healthcare system and the incompetence of supposedly highly-trained doctors, while running a fraught private life when she can drag herself away from medical duties. Though married to a cheerful-looking fellow called Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), with whom she is bringing up daughters Grace and Fiona, Jackie manages to find time for an affair with pharmacist Eddie, who slips her fistfuls of painkillers to help her cope with a bad back. She can hardly drag herself to work without dosing herself up with OxyContin (aka "Hillbilly Heroin").
They're billing it as a "dark comedy", which would be spot on if they took out the "comedy" part. So dark is it that the New York State Nurses Association took the show to task for the unethical behaviour of its central character, whom they described as "a substance abuser who trades sex with a pharmacist for prescription drugs". Clearly Jackie is no saint, even if one of the trainee nurses in her charge describes her as one, yet she's driven by what she would consider as doing good. After a solitary episode, we've already seen her forge the signature of a dead bike messenger on an organ donor card so other patients could benefit. Then she stole money from a Libyan diplomat, hospitalised with a severed ear sustained during his sadistic slashing of a prostitute, to give to the dead man's grieving and pregnant girlfriend.
The inference was that Jackie is in the grip of a Robin Hood complex, but the writers wanted to take it further. They had Jackie approvingly quoting one of the nuns who taught her at school saying "the people with the greatest capacity for good are the ones with the greatest capacity for evil." The episode ended with Jackie herself addressing the sainthood issue, and endorsing St Augustine's thesis of "make me good, God, but not yet." It makes a change to portray a nurse with Messianic tendencies instead of a doctor, but this felt like leaping fences in the Grand National before we'd barely learned to walk.
At least they picked Edie Falco, long seasoned in moral dilemmas thanks to her epic portrayal of Carmela Soprano, to convey the contradictory tones of Nurse Jackie's character. Tough, blunt and indifferent to issues of personal vanity, Jackie stands in stark contrast to Dr Cooper (Peter Facinelli), with his jet-set private life, or her close friend Dr O'Hara (Eve Best), who puts up with the foot-squeezing anguish caused by her Manolo Blahnik shoes because they make her legs look great. "I don't do chatty," Jackie tells nurse Zoey Berkow (Merritt Wever, pictured above with Falco). "I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people." Whoa. Cross her at your peril.