TV Preview: Tom Shales on Showtime's 'Nurse Jackie' and TNT's 'HawthoRNe'

(By Karen Neal -- Tnt)
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

Do nurses still say "Time for our shot" when they clearly don't intend to share it with you? Regardless, it is now time for our nurses. Two new medical shows about bewitched, bothered and beleaguered healers are debuting within a few days of each other: Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," starring Edie Falco, and TNT's "HawthoRNe," with Jada Pinkett Smith.

"Nurse Jackie" is a viewing experience that leaves one feeling amply rewarded; "HawthoRNe" is drudgery that once or twice borders on torture. Where Falco's Jackie Peyton is a caustic, complicated character, Pinkett Smith's Christina Hawthorne seems more the monotonous cliche -- and the latter actress brings little apparent emotional weight to the role.

Jackie, a veteran nurse in the emergency room at All Saints Hospital in Manhattan, is made more real by her flaws. She knows her medications -- intimately -- and thinks nothing of crushing Percocets into powder and disguising them in artificial-sweetener packets for a quick pick-me-up. She thinks she needs the drugs for recharges after a half-day of tidying up messy human beings -- aching souls who come to see her, as they do other health-care professionals, "on the very worst day of their lives."

Jackie's language is R-rated and filled with obscenities, her manner can chop people off at the thighs ("I am not attracted to you at all") and she removes her wedding ring upon reaching the hospital each day because she doesn't want her boyfriend, Eddie -- the house pharmacist who supplies her with more than pills -- to know she's married. But years of experience and her highly developed sensitivities are tools she uses to cut to the chase, cut through red tape and cut around middlemen and other gratuitous obstacles planted in her path.

All of which helps explain why "Nurse Jackie" is one of the true choice cuts of the year.

The drama, which Showtime calls a black comedy, is full of sly twists and startling variations on familiar med-show traditions; this is not just another lament about the long hours and difficult conditions common to those who toil in hospitals. Nor are they all do-gooders and humanitarians. Even the frankness and realism of the late, great "ER" are outdone by "Nurse Jackie's" penetrating and irreverent candor.

"Make me good, God," Jackie prays, "but not yet." If she were all saint herself, she wouldn't be able to function in the grubby, nutty environment of the human zoo in which she mightily labors. She has mastered the arts of situational ethics and practical corner-cutting, as evidenced by the case of the severed ear in the premiere and second episode. The poor little thing travels around the hospital before ending up in the women's bathroom, prompting humorless boss Gloria Akalitus (the impressive Anna Deavere Smith) to note angrily, "Ears don't just jump into toilets, do they?"

The more, shall we say, unusual cases that pop up in this ER (during the first four episodes) come across as plausibly crazy rather than self-consciously shocking: A visiting tourist who thinks she might be pregnant finds out she's suffering withdrawal from Vicodin instead; a prostitute has been stabbed several times by, apparently, her pimp; the abrasions on a young man's testicles are the result, he says, of scratches from his kitty; and the girlfriend of a bike messenger who died and turned out to be an organ donor asks Nurse Jackie, "Can I have his heart?"

He didn't intend to be an organ donor, actually. Nurse Jackie doctored his driver's license as he died.

The casting, like the writing and direction, is impeccable, and includes Eve Best as Jackie's doctor friend Eleanor; Peter Facinelli as cute but semi-competent ER physician Fitch "Coop" Cooper; Merritt Wever as a bleeding-heart novice; and Haaz Sleiman as a gay Muslim orderly. Guest patients come by now and then, not always commendably. The producers should be ashamed of the cornily cute "little old Jewish man" played by venerable Eli Wallach in the third episode; his wife spoon-feeds him chicken soup as he lies there dying much too adorably.

For the most part, however, "Nurse Jackie" looks like a habit well worth acquiring. Falco, her hair much shorter for this role, sheds the skin of Carmela Soprano (from, of course, HBO's "The Sopranos") within the first five or 10 minutes. This character is strikingly different, not only tougher and flintier than Carmela but perhaps more than Tony, as well. "Nurse Jackie" dispenses bitter pills with brilliant finesse.

It's a pity that the head nurse played by Jada Pinkett Smith in TNT's "HawthoRNe" is so faithful to the kinds of cliches that "Nurse Jackie" shatters. Suffering nobly as she battles doctors and diseases at Trinity Hospital in Richmond, Christina dashes off to try halting a suicide from the hospital's roof to get things started, then later does battle with prima-donna doctors and shortsighted cost-cutters, and has her daughter (Hannah Hodson) thrown in the clink for having handcuffed herself to a vending machine.

"One year ago today, my mom let my dad die," Christina's daughter says within her mother's earshot, a contribution to the burgeoning back story about how daddy died. The plan is obviously to reveal bits and pieces about him as the weeks go by; in the meantime, Christina chats regularly with hubby's ashes, which sit in an urn near her bed. The conversations are a trifle one-sided, naturally.

Christina is too much the mistreated crusader, and the sea of troubles she opposes is always overflowing. Many of the medical-show inevitabilities that "Nurse Jackie" artfully avoids, "Hawthorne" embraces. We hear "stat!" being shouted early on, for instance, and in short order, out pop those infernal paddles and the warning cries of "clear!" as some poor slob is zapped with volts to get his ticker tocking.

Christina's mother-in-law is too mean, her daughter too snippy and the earnest male nurse at the hospital too touchy about his gender. It's remarkable, really, how quickly they can get on one's nerves, making "HawthoRNe" a show in need of emergency care rather than one offering fast-fast-fast relief.

Nurse Jackie (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 10:30 on Showtime.

HawthoRNe (one hour) debuts June 16 at 9 p.m. on TNT.

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