The Trials and Tribulations of Nurse Jackie

The Trials and Tribulations of Nurse Jackie

Nurse Jackie is an original, darkly comedic show about the life of emergency department nurse Jackie Peyton, who is played by Edie Falco. Falco successfully breaks out of her Carmela Soprano role by throwing herself full force into the unsympathetic, unapologetic character of Jackie. The show takes place in an All Saints hospital in New York, complete with religious statues which stand in stark contrast with the staff who meddle in sinful conduct, and in Jackie’s home in Queens. Jackie is a flawed, complex character who, whilst being devoted to her job, has tangible issues in her personal life. She is married to the eternally adoring Kevin and, despite owning and running a bar, spends more time with their two young daughters than his wife. Their eldest daughter Grace suffers from an anxiety problem, which gradually worsens throughout the two series. This is debatably an underrepresented issue on television, particularly among children. Her marriage isn’t perfect either, and the couple go through struggles; some typical, some atypical.

The series also deal with nursing being a traditionally sub-ordinate role to the doctor, and how little credit is given to nurses for the work they do. Most medical shows focus on the lives of doctors, with little regard for the nurses. So this show is unprecedented in what it represents.

Jackie’s best friend is O’Hara, a British outspoken doctor who is fiercely loyal to her friend. Her colleague, Dr. Fitch ‘Coop’ Cooper presents as a falsely confident professional who suffers with a form of Tourette’s that causes him to inappropriately touch women as a response to stress. Zoe, a student nurse, is introduced as a naive and enthusiastic character, who slowly grows confidence in her role as the series progresses. However, one criticism would be that most of the male nurses are gay, a stereotype that is slowly being phased out.

The likeable ED pharmacist, Eddie, is Jackie’s dirty little secret: she embarks on an affair with him, never disclosing that she’s married with children. Every morning before her shift, Jackie removes her wedding ring, often prompted by O’Hara, so no one at work is aware of her marital status. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a character who so willingly denies the existence of her own children, but Jackie isn’t looking for pity, she doesn’t need it.

When she does need something however, it’s definitely not sympathy. It’s probably Oxycontin. Yes, not only is Jackie an adulterer, she’s also a drug addict. Like most nurses, she suffers from back pain. But as she says herself, a nurse with a bad back is unemployed. Rather than seek expert help, she takes prescription painkillers, mostly provided by Eddie after an intimate session in his office. Naturally, some nursing associations were up in arms over the blatant portrayal of an addict nurse, and how her behaviour violates the Code of Ethics. However no programme that depicts such bleak social problems will go without controversy. Sometimes O’Hara writes a prescription for her, which could make her an enabler, or emphasise the point that doctors readily dish out pills rather than take the time to examine patients. Inadequacies in the health system are effortlessly exposed throughout the episodes, such as lack of money and the imperfect hierarchy structure.

Jackie engages in typical addict behaviour. Her secretive nature makes her paranoid and tense. She finds innovative methods to conceal her addiction, such as crushing Percocet and putting it in empty sugar sachets to add to her coffee later. After a stressful period at work, she locks herself into toilet cubicles to snort some pain relief, as it hits the bloodstream faster than taking it whole. She hides pills around her house, in common household items, in unthinkable places where no one will find them.

However deplorable her addiction is, she is still fully functional, completely competent at her job and has an admirable degree of compassion for her patients. She’s not a perfect human being, she might just be a terrible one, but she’s a damn good nurse. Jackie often defies protocol for the benefit of her patients, and encourages Zoe to do so too.

The hospital serves as the appropriate back drop, as its religious premise provides the characters with food for thought; a moral basis where good and evil have a clear and separate divide, as the staff try to redeem themselves through the medium of prayer, however pathetic their efforts are. It allows the characters to err and repent, and the chapel permits them space and privacy to have informal confessions with each other, as a means of atonement.

Nurse Jackie allows its cast to evolve and become people in their own right, not just supporting characters. It doesn’t rely on cheap thrills or leave every episode on a cliffhanger. Instead, you get to know the characters, and feel sympathy for most of them. Never has a show so wholly defined the full cast rather than just the lead role. It’s not perfect, it does possess a couple of clichés we’ve seen before, but most of what’s on television does anyway. It’s not just about a nurse, it’s about her effect on her colleagues, and her family. My favourite part about the show? It obeys basic science: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There are consequences to every deed, no exceptions. Sometimes it’s not what you think either, hence opposite reaction.

So honestly, if you want to watch something that has only a fraction of the BS that’s on TV these days, watch Nurse Jackie. If you’re sick of shows whose problems resolve themselves by the end of the programme, watch Nurse Jackie. And if you want some good old-fashioned swearing and brutal honesty, watch Nurse Jackie.