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Television

‘Nurse Jackie,’ uncompromising and underrated

Edie Falco (left)  and Anna Deavere Smith  in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.”

David M. Russell/SHOWTIME

Edie Falco (left) and Anna Deavere Smith in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.”

“Nurse Jackie” is one of the most undervalued series on TV.

That may seem like an unwarranted statement; since its premiere in 2009, the Showtime series has won two major Emmys, for actress Edie Falco and supporting actress Merritt Wever. But still, “Nurse Jackie” has not inspired the kind of online embrace and analysis it deserves, as if it’s just another one of TV’s weekly shovel loads. And I’ve heard countless viewers dismiss it over the years, noting in particular that it is too repetitive, as Jackie Peyton keeps making the same mistakes, taking apart her life piece by precious piece.

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But the repetitions are a critical part of its greatness. “Nurse Jackie” has grown into one of TV’s most uncompromising series, a portrait of addiction that refuses, and then refuses all over again, to soften the truth or give viewers a comforting way out. The show insists that we see Jackie, New York ER nurse extraordinaire, for what she truly is: an addict, a person with a disease, a woman who loves and needs her pills and powders more than she loves anyone, including herself.

The “Nurse Jackie” writers don’t just have Jackie hit bottom and recover, the kind of arc that ultimately turns so many television portrayals of drug abuse – including on “reality” TV — into heartwarming tales of healing. They just keep making her bottom lower and lower, a seemingly bottomless pit of despair and self-harm. Most people whose lives have been touched by addiction or an addict know the honesty of that kind of unromanticized and unrelenting narrative. Yes, her slips provide purpose to the show, but, more important, they serve the authenticity.

The powerful irony in “Nurse Jackie” is that Jackie is more than functional; professionally, she is a heroine. She is the saint of All Saints Hospital, the person we’d all want on our side if we were in an ER. It’s a lovely sight, watching her invent creative workarounds to deal with sloppy doctors and insurance hurdles, bestowing deep compassion and sympathy on terrified or helpless patients. Her work with Helen, the homeless, alcoholic nun who keeps returning to the ER, has been close to angelic.

Personally, of course, she is no better than a junkie or one of the “Breaking Bad” meth heads. She has no qualms about using her colleagues to feed her habit, which we’ve seen her do a number of times this season, most vividly last week when she staged having Gloria Akalitus run over her foot so she could dodge the DEA screen and get drugs. The title of the show refers to Jackie the nurse, but it is also inviting us to nurse Jackie, to give this troubled woman all of the concern and benevolence that she gives to her own patients.

I don’t deny that it’s hard to watch Jackie stealing and cheating, spiraling down and down and down. “Nurse Jackie” isn’t really a comedy, which Falco acknowledged when she accepted her Emmy, saying, “I’m not funny.” The show offers plenty of comic relief around the edges, as the supporting characters’ quirks — Zoey’s self-consciousness, Coop’s issues with women — fly out of control. Last week’s episode brought a few smiles, as the hospital staff celebrated the life of the newsstand proprietor with an impromptu sing-along to “The Candy Man.” But Jackie is the core of the show, and “Nurse Jackie” is the very dramatic story of her disastrous life. You can’t help but cringe each time she hurts herself physically and spiritually.

She is another one of TV’s famed antiheroes, but she is that rare thing — a female antihero. Since Tony Soprano, TV producers no longer assume that viewers only want to watch good guys and bad guys. They understand that we can handle and enjoy exploring the gray areas, where we feel sympathy for morally disturbed men such as Walter White and Don Draper. But they still haven’t embraced many stories about similarly complex women. Maybe our culture still expects women to play nice? So Jackie is an especially important addition to TV’s cast of challenging lead characters.

I’ve been waiting to grow tired of Jackie and her fall, despite the unflagging intensity and precision of Falco’s performance. After six seasons, and a seventh already confirmed, how can the writers possibly keep the slip-sliding of an addict’s life fresh? And yet they do, adding to the stakes each time she resumes her bad behavior, making her manipulations and deceptions — one of which you will see in Sunday’s episode — increasingly jaw-dropping. “Nurse Jackie” is a bracing, fascinating character study that, so far, has rejected denial about addiction with as much vigor as Jackie has held onto it.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

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