Edie Falco, known to most of us as Carmela in the Sopranos, plays New York nurse Jackie Peyton – a woman attempting to juggle work, relationships and children, and who is constantly finding herself at risk of dropping one of the balls.
The only way she can cope is by feeding herself painkillers, acquired from her lover in the hospital pharmacy.
Jackie works in the A&E department. She is on the frontline of a crumbling healthcare system that fails to deliver for working class people.
She does whatever she has to do to get her job done.
This frequently involves breaking regulations, the law, avoiding the hospital bureaucrats and relying on a network of staff who will help or at least turn a blind eye.
Class issues are at the forefront of hospital life. Jackie steals from rich patients to help poor ones, breaks rules to treat the uninsured, and gives hell to the overeducated and under-experienced doctor who kills a patient because he doesn’t take her advice.
The underpaid nurses are the heroes in this show.
Nursing associations in the US aren’t impressed with the programme. Nurse Jackie’s constant rule-breaking and her addiction to painkillers might give nurses a bad name.
I wonder if the doctors’ association makes the same complaint about shows like House.
But I think they are missing the point. This isn’t a documentary, or an advert for nursing.
The show raises issues which go to the heart of life in modern capitalist society – how individuals cope with the conflicting pressures of work and family in a world which seems to be rushing towards disaster.
The relationship between Jackie and her ten year old daughter, Grace, expresses it beautifully. Grace is constantly anxious about the world.
Her pictures at school have drawn teachers’ attention because they are so bleak – the sun never appears, even in a picture of Florida.
In one scene Grace asks her mum whether the bubonic plague could ever come back. “No, of course not,” says Jackie, smilingly.
“What about the flu epidemic that killed millions in 1918?”
“Er, no…” She is lying to her daughter – but what would be the benefit of telling her the truth?
The school nurse wants to put Grace on medication, and we can see the feelings of guilt that Jackie and her husband have – are they failing their children? Shouldn’t they be able to protect them?
It’s also interesting to note that those who would happily put a ten year old on drugs would be quick to condemn Jackie for her own form of self-medication.
Nurse Jackie is funny – her wit is acerbic and dry.
There are also characters who verge on farcical nearly all the time, notably the bureaucrat who knows things are going on behind her back but can never keep up.
But this is more like the 1970’s medical comedy M*A*S*H than the more recent Scrubs – there are often laughs but there is always bleakness.
This is not your average drama line-up. It is notable for being a woman’s world: the nurse, her student, the bureaucrat, the main doctor, the children – all are female.
Two of the other main nurses are gay men, and Jackie’s husband tends to be the one who looks after the children.
Jackie is the hero, but unusually, for a woman character at least, she’s not wholly likeable – and this is why she’s so fascinating.
Unlike Dr House, who everyone looks up to and worships for his genius, Jackie has to get on and fix things without getting much credit – except from her student nurse, who says things like “I think you’re an angel”, and gets short shrift from Jackie in response.
We see Jackie at work, at home, at her children’s school, in restaurants – but we never see her out of her uniform.
She is attempting to pull all the threads of her life together under one identity – “nurse”.
She will look after everyone, fix everything, and never let her own stress show. It is clear that this situation cannot hold – for Jackie or for any of us.
I don’t expect things to get easier for Jackie as the series goes on, but I am rooting for her all the way.
And if I haven’t convinced you to give her a chance, then here’s one more inducement – the Christian Parents Television Council has denounced Jackie as “a filthy degenerate”. That must be worth a look!
Nurse Jackie is on Mondays at 10pm on BBC2