‘Nurse Jackie” is one of the wisest shows on TV right now. There are countless quick-fix reality series out there, promising instant makeovers and overnight fame. And most network dramas give us characters who morph — from adulterous to loyal, from addicted to clean, from bad to good — in an episode or two or maybe three.
But “Nurse Jackie” doesn’t romanticize or blur the rigors of life changes. Showtime’s comic drama, which returns for season 5 on Sunday night at 9, continues to tease out the complications of addiction and recovery through the story of a nurse who safeguards patients while ruining herself. It’s honest, credible, trustworthy storytelling. The writers spent the first three seasons chronicling Jackie’s slow tumble to the bottom, exploring every facet of her self-destruction as she tore apart her seemingly perfect life. Why was she cheating on her loving husband, why was she alienating her two daughters, why was she ice cold to her co-workers? The show’s only answer: She’s an addict.
Last season, “Nurse Jackie” finally saw Jackie going to rehab, but again, the writers didn’t rush her recovery or put any polish on it. The life she returned to sober was now completely screwed up, as she faced the bitterness of her betrayed husband, the distrust and pain of her older daughter, and restricted duties at the hospital. She lost her nearest friend in recovery, a teenager named Charlie. And she experienced a crisis of self, as some of her most pronounced personality traits — stubbornness, secrecy — had served her addiction but were no longer useful. Jackie didn’t just leave rehab last season and — voila! — rebuild her life; she had only taken the first step in what would be a long trip.
The new season continues in the same exploratory manner, with Jackie still trying to find a balance as a newly sober mother, friend, former wife, nurse, and, in later episodes, date. And that consistency is a good thing, because “Nurse Jackie” recently went through some significant backstage changes, as Clyde Phillips (“Dexter”) took over as showrunner from creators Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem. I was afraid Phillips might be tempted to move the story along faster and push Jackie into an unlikely triumph or crash — having Jackie and Kevin kiss and make up or something facile like that. But our heroine is still very much in free fall. “I keep wondering when it is I get to the happy part,” she says in episode 2.
Jackie, played with seamless focus by Edie Falco, finds herself more and more alone this season, as she moves forward with her new life. She’s not a fan of AA meetings, O’Hara (Eve Best) is distracted by her baby, and her kids are frequently with Kevin. Also, Zoey (the irresistible Merritt Wever) moves out, which she explains in a typically Zoey way: “Sometimes I think I’m helping and I’m actually unhelping.” The possibility of a slip continues to be very real, not least of all because Jackie is surrounded by pills at work. Meanwhile, a few new faces in the ER change the dynamic there. Dr. Carrie Roman (Betty Gilpin) is an incompetent first-year resident who trades on her looks and stirs Jackie’s ire (and Coop’s lust), and Dr. Ike Prentiss (Morris Chestnut) practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan and is trying to step up everyone’s game.
“Go On,” Matthew Perry’s NBC sitcom, is aiming for the same close study of trauma as “Nurse Jackie.” It tracks the lead character’s grief after his wife dies. But “Nurse Jackie” is a far more successful dissection of a person in profound flux, taking it apart piece by piece, mistake by mistake, and, yes, victory after well-earned victory. We watch Jackie try and fail and try again, as she struggles to weather the storm that comes after the storm.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.