Anyone who has spent time in a hospital quickly learns that nurses run the show. Physicians do their rounds and make an appearance, but nurses dispense medicine, listen to complaints, hold hands, bring that extra blanket or glass of water, and more often than people know, save lives.
Medical shows have never been more popular or more relevant and each one treats the subject matter differently. ER kept a breathless pace, while the breathlessness on Grey’s Anatomy often has more to do with the affairs between staff members than medical affairs. In the midst of its second season, Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, has carved out its own niche and attracted an impressive fan base. On Monday evening, May 3, Edie Falco, who plays Jackie Peyton, appeared at the Paley Center for Media to talk about the show.
It’s a tribute to Falco’s talents as an actress that she has left Carmela Soprano behind. Her Nurse Jackie is so convincing that one hopes she won’t happen upon a medical emergency on a Manhattan street someday and be asked to give CPR. (Or perform the Heimlich maneuver in a city restaurant, as she did in one episode, above). And those Manhattan scenes show up on Nurse Jackie because one of her conditions for doing the program was having it shot in New York.
Falco is the hub of a cast that has produced one of the best ensembles now on television. Three of the cast members were at the Paley Center: Eve Best (Dr. Eleanor O’Hara, the Brit who always has Jackie’s back), Stephen Wallem (Thor Lundgren, a fellow nurse struggling with diabetes), and Arjun Gupta (Sam, a new addition to the hospital’s nursing team who shares Jackie’s affection for pills). Other cast members not present but who were prominent in the upcoming episode screened for the Paley Center audience include: veteran actress Anna Deveare Smith, as Gloria Akalitus, the by-the-book ER administrator; Paul Schulze, as Eddie Walzer, the pharmacist who has an affair with Jackie; Dominic Fumusa, as Kevin Peyton, Jackie’s husband; and Peter Facinelli, as Dr. Fitch Cooper, the smug Ivy League doctor who, when stressed, resorts to inappropriate physical touching including, in one episode, Jackie’s breast.
Even the best cast, however, will not succeed without great writing. Fortunately, Showtime brought in two of the best—Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius (from left, above), longtime friends and collaborators who got everything right, from the characters, to the setting, to the plot. In person, Wallem (yes, she’s Stephen’s sister) and Brixius appear very different, from their appearances (Wallem’s casual attire to Brixius preppy outfit), to their demeanor. Wallem was quick with the one-liners, while Brixius gave more carefully thought out answers.
Nurse Jackie actually began as an unsolicited script delivered to Falco by a friend. Originally titled Nurse Mona, the first go-round was completely different. “It was dark with supernatural elements and lots of voice overs,” said Executive Producer Richie Jackson. The idea, however, was intriguing, so Jackson brought in the Wallem-Brixius team to write a pilot. Both women live in Los Angeles. What did it take to get them on a plane to New York? “He said two magic words—Edie Falco,” said Wallem. “To be able to write for her was a dream.” With her typical wry humor, Wallem added: “We love addiction! It’s hysterical!”
Drug addiction is just one theme that other shows might shy away from, or, at least, not treat in such a humorous manner. For these writers, producers, and actors, however, that’s the appeal of Showtime. The pay TV cable service is known for pushing the envelope with programs like Dexter, The L Word, Californication, and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Nurse Jackie manages to pack a lot of action and controversy into its 30 minute running time. “Showtime allowed us to go dark,” said Wallem. “TV has gotten so watered down. This is the perfect storm.” Wallem called Showtime “a fearless network. We get to cut off body parts and flush them down the toilet.”
Falco said that she did research by going to Bellevue. “But I felt in the way,” she said. “It’s important that the medical aspect of the show be realistic, but that’s not really what the show is about. It’s about people.”
Although the show was in development before the debate on national health care began, Nurse Jackie often weighs in on these issues. “People come into an emergency room on the worst day of their lives,” said Brixius. “No one should be going through this and worry about not being able to pay.” Jackie is an advocate for these patients, she added.
For her part, Falco said she understands Jackie’s mindset regarding her addiction. “I totally get it,” she said. “Addiction makes people do some pretty wacky things. She compartmentalizes parts of her life. When she’s in one area, she’s in denial about another area.”
Are nurses upset that Falco’s Jackie Peyton is portrayed as a drug user cheating on her husband? “The favorite fan group is the nursing community,” said Brixius. “Nurses will say, `She says what I wish I could say.’”
And Nurse Jackie will be stirring things up for some time to come. The show has been renewed for a third season on Showtime.