By Ann Conway
When did I stop feeling sure, feeling safe
And start wondering why, wondering why
Is this a dream, am I here, where are you
What's in back of the sky?
From “Valley of the Dolls,” Nurse Jackie’s theme song
“Showtime’s comedies…have the whole God-Is-Dead thing down to a science,” posits a June 7 Newsday review of the new series, Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco of Sopranos fame, as well as the playwright/actor Anna Deavere Smith and Tony nominee Eve Best.
Are TV critics now so theologically uninformed that only saccharine vehicles like Touched By An Angel are “religious”?
I guess the critic never read Graham Greene, who “savored the bouquet of sin,” as a recent New York Times essay reminds us. Strangely enough, Nurse Jackie’s dark comedy reminds me of Greene’s oeuvre; a religious understanding of everyday life is fundamental to the new series, describing a contemporary life and setting—a Manhattan hospital—where “virtue is by and large uninteresting, and moral weakness, grubby and persistent, is the main attraction.”
Where, as the lead character says in the pilot episode, “Sophomore year in high school, Sister Jane Frances de Chantal said, “people who have the greatest capacity for good have the greatest capacity for evil.”
Nurse Jackie concerns the tragicomic life of a middle aged emergency department nurse; as played by Falco, she emerges as competent, thoroughly non-chatty (“quiet and mean are my people” she says to a student nurse) and humane in the midst of moral chaos. Even when that means bending the rules: she signs an organ donor card for a young bike messenger who is needlessly dead because of a medical error, saying, “It may have been a shame, but it will not be a waste. That I promise.”
The show is frequently very funny in a tough, New York way: the postmortem fighting between the messenger’s brothers, a cop and a firefighter, is precious. But it also has an unsparing moral sense.
“She did it for attention,” a diplomat says to Jackie after he slices up a prostitute. He’s off the hook, a cop tells the nurse—diplomatic immunity.
“What do you do for attention?” the diplomat asks, looking at Jackie suggestively.
In the next scene, Jackie flushes the man’s severed ear down the john.
“I do you,” she murmurs sweetly.
Maybe, given the setting, it’s not a shock, but here are a lot of severed bodies in Nurse Jackie. Lying on a pew in the hospital chapel (one of the show's pleasures is its Christian iconography; scenes often take place in a corridor full of tapestries and a large statue of Christ, His arms open in welcome), Jackie’s colleague Mohammed gazes at a mural of John the Baptist.
“What does one offer as a side dish when one serves John the Baptists’ head on a silver platter?” Mohammed asks his friend.
“Cole slaw,” Jackie spits back.
Still, between the organ donation, the ear, and the head—not to mention T.S. Eliot references and discussions of God’s role in the distribution of pain—I began to wonder what was going on. So I looked up Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, founder of the Congregation of the Visitation, an order of nuns.
It turned out that I had heard about St. Jane in grammar school; she was the saint who ignored her son’s wails as she stepped over his body and into her convent.
"Can the tears of a child shake her resolution?" asked her son’s tutor.
"Oh! no,” replied the saint, "but after all I am a mother!"
That kind of hardness characterizes Jackie, although she also evidences the fragility of addiction, dependent as she is on prescription opiates, which may explain her affair with a hospital pharmacist.
“Can you give me some Oxy?” she asks after they have sex in a supply closet. You can see the need in her face at the end of a long day.
“If I was to be a saint,” Jackie muses as she returns to her husband and two little girls that night, “I would be like Augustine. He saw them as good and not so good, but he wasn’t going to give up his earthly pleasures until he was good and ready. Make me good, God…but not yet.”
I’m with her. I hope she continues to be good just as she is, in her continuing story.