Tag Archives: Eve Best

Edie Falco and Eve Best on Nurse Jackie

The second season of this Showtime series continued to showcase the remarkable talents of Edie Falco and a terrific supporting cast. Writer/producers Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius (who are themselves recovering addicts) risk putting together a story based on the trials and tribulations of a drug addict who also happens to be extremely smart and competent at her job, if not quite so effective with her family. All these episodes into the story, we still don’t know the root of Jackie’s addiction, or for that matter, her unhappiness.

Because truth be told, Jackie never really seems that unhappy. Her husband is handsome and sweet, a much more maternal figure than she is, who manages their household with aplomb and sometimes grace. Her on-again off-again affair with Eddie, the pharmacist, seems sincere, just when you think she’s only using him for his access to drugs. Which maybe she is; one of the more compelling aspects of Nurse Jackie is that we never hear Jackie’s internal monologue.

We occasionally see her look at herself in a mirror (the show’s opening credits roll over a slow-motion scene of Jackie’s pleasant relationship with her medicine cabinet), but she never seems to appraise herself honestly. Something in her gaze laughs off the implications of what she’s doing (which is usually snorting up a line of powder or pills poured from a capsule she’s broken open). Falco plays her almost mischievously, as though part of the addiction game, for Jackie, is that she can manage to maintain it without getting caught by anyone else or even admitting it to herself. All her intelligence goes toward maintaining the ruse of her competent life.

That basic lie compromises all of Jackie’s relationships, but Wallem and Brixius don’t judge the character. Part of what makes Jackie compelling is how she juggles the contradiction between the self she presents to her colleagues and friends and the secrets she hides.

This season, a few cracks started to appear in the façade of her sangfroid. On a vacation with her husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), and her daughters, Jackie loses the stash she’s brought with her in a nicely camouflaging dental floss container , and quickly finds an excuse to take her family home. The conditions for returning are reasonable (and since this is a comedy series, funny)—they’ve wound up in a B&B that represents the worst of the category, with a proprietor who’s immediately in their business and a room that barely contains the four of them.

Situations always conspire to hide Jackie’s need. In this case, it’s easy for her to suggest that a stay-cation will be better for all of them, and Kevin promptly loads them up and heads home. But that scene is one of the series’ first indications that Jackie can’t do without, that the drugs she collects and enjoys are more necessary than recreational.

Other cracks in her façade appeared this season in her hysteric daughter Grace’s neurotic symptoms. The poor kid’s anxiety rides so high she’s losing her hair. Grace is painfully serious, mortally concerned with ravages to the environment and her potentially short future. Grace manifests physically and emotionally everything that Jackie hides. Jackie refuses to think about the consequences of her double life; Grace thinks too deeply about a childhood that should be much more carefree.

Jackie refuses to see danger anywhere, believing she’s somehow impervious to reality and what it might inflict. Grace can barely leave her room without being hurt or affected on some somatic or spiritual level by the pain that seems to exude from every corner of her life. Jackie can’t help Grace; she’s like an alien creature who feels everything, while Jackie resolutely feels nothing.

The wonderful Elizabeth Marvel plays the mother of Grace’s friend as an insufferably perfect supervisor of her daughter’s life. But Jackie simply refuses to be the model mother. In fact, her drug use seems in part about protesting or resisting all the conventional roles that are rightfully hers—friend, lover, wife, mother—rejecting them for a life lived behind the rose-colored glasses provided by those pretty red and white pills.

Only Eddie (Paul Schulze) has an inkling of what’s up. The series’ first season ended with him uncovering the truth of Jackie’s double-life, and this season, he insinuated himself into her family by befriending Kevin across his bar in Queens. As Kevin and Eddie become good friends, we realize how isolated and lonely Kevin is in his househusband/barkeep role. But Jackie’s lives converge in uncomfortable ways that begin to complicate the simple solid line she draws between the hospital and home.

Eddie becomes a bit snarky this season, since he knows one of Jackie’s secrets and uses it to exercise power over her. The situation lets the writers show Jackie sweating.She’s furious with Eddie for infiltrating her life, but quickly accommodates to the power he holds and changes her tactics. She keeps Eddie in line by baiting him with the possibility of returning to their relationship, although he retains the upper hand, since Kevin has come to like and trust him as his friend.

Jackie’s relationship with Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best) also takes a hit this season, becoming more complex and layered as the writers flesh out Best’s character. Their friendship has always been odd—would a wealthy doctor really be BFFs with a nurse from Queens? Would they really lunch in fancy restaurants, and become so close that O’Hara would want to pay for Jackie’s kids’ education?

The plot point stretches believability, and yet as played by Falco and Best, the women’s compatibility comes from their wry, even mordant sense of their absurd situations, if not the sum of their lives. Their respect for one another stems from how good they are at what they do, and from being women in a professional environment that privileges men.

Anna Deavere Smith, as Gloria Akalitus, was given a larger role this season, which allowed her character, too, to illustrate women’s plight in a male-dominated world.While Akalitus still carries much of the show’s comedy, patrolling her ER like a bomb-sniffing dog, looking for rule infractions and inappropriate behavior along with cost-cutting possibilities, this season clarified that Gloria also has a real heart. She and Jackie understood one another on a deeper level, and Gloria learned how to manage the huge and unwieldy ego that is Dr. Cooper (“Coop,” wonderfully played by Peter Facinelli).

One of Nurse Jackie’s central pleasures is the buffoonery of its leading male character. Utterly self-centered and entirely arrogant, Coop expects the staff to kow-tow to his position just because he’s male and a doctor, surrounded by nurses who are mostly women and gay men. Enamored of his own good looks, Coop pays to extend the ad campaign that featured him as the face of All Saints Hospital, unable to tolerate not seeing himself on billboards and bus shelters around the city.

In the second season’s finale, Coop beds the free-spirited girlfriend of the recovering addict male nurse, Sam (Arjun Gupta), prompting the poor guy to fall off the wagon and to land his fist on Coop’s nose. Crushed that his face has been compromised, Coop goes crying to O’Hara and Jackie, while Sam gets completely bombed, forcing Jackie to reveal that she knows all the tricks for quickly returning someone to sobriety.

The writers temper Coop’s insufferable ego-centricism by making his character as full of contradictions as Jackie’s. He’s the child of two mothers, raised by lesbians yet still flaunting his male privilege and cluelessness about what it means to be “othered.”Occasionally, he uses his provenance to try to establish liberal credentials, but it never quite sticks, as Coop has too much fun surfing through life on the wave of his whiteness and his maleness.

His absurd and occasional attempts to make common cause are only excuses for comedy. For example, when Harvey Fierstein guest stars as a gay man (no surprise) whose partner is dying, Coop makes sure to let him know that his mothers are lesbians. That Fierstein and most other characters respond with indifference is a neat commentary on how an unconventional background no long automatically makes you empathetic or even interesting.

Coop’s tic—when he’s stressed, he grabs women’s breasts and won’t let go—is hysterical in both senses of the word. It provides terrific opportunities for his acting partners (especially Merritt Wever, as apprenticing nurse Zoey) to react comically and it’s a very funny psychological manifestation of his inability to crawl out of the womb.Even though Coop’s mothers made a guest appearance in Season One, we learn little else about Coop’s life outside of All Saints.

We really don’t know anyone’s back-story on Nurse Jackie. The appearance this season of O’Hara’s sometimes girlfriend—a television journalist played by the beautiful, perky Julia Ormond—revealed that she’s bisexual. In one episode over that story arc, O’Hara and Sam have a quickie in the hospital chapel. As their breathing starts getting hot and heavy, Sam admits he has a girlfriend and O’Hara retorts, “So do I.”

Although her relationship with the girl reporter doesn’t work out, O’Hara’s lesbian proclivities add nuance and texture to a character who’s already an unusual take on what it means to be a woman doctor. Proudly rich, decked out in catch-me-fuck-me heels and designer clothing under her white lab coat, O’Hara is supremely competent and unruffled.

Yet all we know about her outside of her professional life is that she won’t tolerate a girlfriend who cheats and that money is no object. When she and Jackie share a moment, after it’s clear O’Hara’s affair has ended, Jackie admits that she likes being O’Hara’s “girl.” O’Hara confesses that Jackie is the only reason she looks forward to coming to work every day. Odd couple though they might be, Jackie and the doctor are in many ways the show’s central pair, the Meredith and McDreamy of All Saints.

Nurse Jackie, thankfully, isn’t Grey’s Anatomy. While on Grey’s, the staff’s work is a thinly veiled excuse for muddling in their personal melodramas, Nurse Jackie is more interested in how our work becomes our lives. Although Nurse Jackie’s writers say their show is really about addiction, it’s also about how our work is so central, it’s easy to split off professional personae from domestic selves.

Jackie’s best self patrols the floor of All Saints, where she delights in bending rules and advocating for people who have little power over controlling institutions. She might be unethical, but her choices are always for the good, and always make the right kind of difference.

That her personal life is morally suspect casts a pallor on her character’s righteousness, but it’s also realistic and somehow true. No one is perfect. Without her flaws, Jackie would seem a larger-than-life crusader. Instead, she fights the good fight with one hand and puts dope up her nose with the other. Despite the hospital’s name, no one is a saint—or perhaps, on the contrary, we all are, warts and all.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Good Wife, Redux

The Good Wife finishes out the season next week with a finale that promises to launch Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) back into the center of corrupt Chicago power, while Alicia (Julianna Margulies), his very good wife indeed, suffers her own moral turmoil over using her husband’s connections to bring clients to her money-hemorrhaging law firm, Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner, where she’s just secured her future as a junior associate.With Margulies in the lead, and the still terrific Archie Punjabi refining her role as Kalinda, the ace investigator with a rather mysterious personal back-story, The Good Wife continues to offer one of television’s more captivating representations of a middle-aged woman with complicated desires and a real job at which she excels.

The series does a good job exploring, from women’s perspectives, the murky ethical complications of the law and politics (personal and public). Peter Florrick serves as the anchoring amoral, self-serving, grandly ambitious politician and Alicia as his morally righteous counterweight, but the series increasing muddies the waters of Alicia’s purity, placing her in situations that clarify how difficult it is to keep your hands clean, especially when they’re in close proximity to money and power.

In her competition with the Boy Wonder, Cary (Matt Czuchry) for the single junior associate position Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner can afford, for instance, the writers show the cut-throat young white boy overtly campaigning among the other associates, talking Alicia down (she’s too old, too female, and too soft for a tough man’s job, he says) among the sinks and urinals of the firm’s men’s room. But if Cary’s ambition follows the well established capillaries of the good ole boys’ network, Alicia’s bid for the firm’s favor takes her into even murkier territory, in which trading favors with her husband’s handler, Eli Gold (played with subtle and controlled irony and wit by an increasingly appealing Alan Cummings), lands her clients that make her invaluable to the senior partners.

When Cary fails to get the nod for the permanent position, all of his erstwhile good will toward Alicia evaporates, leaving him only with the white male privilege and entitlement that he held in good-natured check while he worked alongside her. Pale with anger at his dismissal from the firm, he accuses Alicia of using her personal connections to advance her cause. And although Cary’s return to always available sexism and ageism makes the once likable character instantly appalling, it’s hard to say he’s wrong. Alicia has indeed finally used her proximity to Peter in ways she resisted throughout the season, now sliding along the slippery slope of political machinations she used to view with clear distaste.

In a demonstration of the power of the new girls’ network, in fact, it’s Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), one of the two chief partners at Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner, who encourages Alicia to mine Peter’s connections to prove her usefulness to the firm. Alicia, the theoretically good wife, has insisted on holding herself aloof from Peter’s problems and the possibilities his connections present, as though she’s not already dirty by association. When she capitulates to Diane’s suggestion, Alicia doesn’t even seem to suffer ethical qualms. Eli Gold’s 11th hour support allows Alicia to keep her job at the firm.

What seems in question as the season finale approaches is whether or not Alicia really can maintain her role as the good wife. Peter’s mother, who’s provided the conservative counterpart to Alicia’s modern, even feminist working mom throughout the season, keeps reminding her daughter-in-law that to be a good wife means to support your husband regardless of your own feelings or ideas. As soon as Peter’s electronic monitoring device is removed, securing his full personal and political freedom, he returns to his influence-mongering, wheeling and dealing ways, glad-handing the powerful who’ve gathered at his home to congratulate him, as his wife, son, and daughter watch from a distance, wondering whether or not they’re glad that he’s back in their lives without restrictions.

When Peter beckons to Alicia to join him at the party, she hesitates, and then walks slowly into his orbit, where he introduces her to two authoritative white men looking for a new law firm, whom he says are from the AFL-CIO. The episode ends on a shot of Alicia grasping hands with one of these gentlemen, symbolically underlining her own willingness to get her hands dirty, and Peter’s willingness to buy her personal loyalty with his political connections.

Unfortunately, while she proves herself more than capable professionally every week, Alicia’s competency as a lawyer gets muddled by her attraction to her boss, Will (Josh Charles), whom she knew in law school and who took a risk by giving her the job when Peter went to prison. The Good Wife would be so much more interesting if it avoided the romantic angle all together, instead of letting snarky Cary be half right when he accuses Alicia of benefiting from the sexual energy between her and Will. The couple’s as yet unconsummated affair is only interesting because Alicia uses it to lord some power over Peter, who’s astonished that Alicia won’t simply forgive his own entirely public sexual peccadilloes and return happily to his bed. Watching Alicia flaunt her sexual independence from Peter has been one of the season’s pleasures.In last night’s episode (#22, “Hybristophilia”), Kalinda insists Alicia celebrate keeping her job as a junior associate by taking her out for multiple shots of liquor. As the two women get increasingly drunk, Alicia asks Kalinda point-blank if she’s “gay” (why can’t anyone on television say the word “lesbian”?). The juicy moment makes textual what the series has hinted at but never verified. Kalinda’s had her share of electric moments with women, who flirt with her and sometimes even try to seduce her. But we’ve also seen Kalinda trading sexual favors with a local detective to get important information relevant to her cases. Is Kalinda a lesbian, or just a woman willing to use any means possible to get what she needs? And does that make her ethically suspect? Or less powerful and full of what often looks like feminist agency?Kalinda dodges Alicia’s question at the bar, coyly insisting she likes to keep her own life private and that her sexual preference doesn’t really matter. And it doesn’t—Kalinda remains sexy and alluring probably for spectators across gender, because of the character’s cheeky brilliance and Punjabi’s charisma (and, okay, her body). It’s fun to speculate about for which team she bats, but it doesn’t really matter, to the plot or to the pleasure of watching the character operate.

Is this the season of incidental lesbianism on television? The L Word is no longer on Showtime, but it seems every time I watch something, another lesbian couple or reference pops up. I’m no longer a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, but flipping through the channels a week or so ago, I wound up catching an episode in which Callie (Sara Ramirez) openly flirts with a female patient at the hospital, who’s forward enough to write her phone number on Callie’s palm. In the same episode, Callie breaks up with her girlfriend, Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), because Callie wants to have a baby and Arizona doesn’t. And mind you, this wasn’t an episode about lesbians; this was just part of the on-going story of two of the show’s recurring, central characters.

And on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, which I do watch and enjoy regularly, Dr. O’Hara (the inimitable Eve Best) turns out to have had an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman, Sarah Khouri (Julia Ormond), a famous television journalist. Although the story arc is brief, it begins when Dr. O’Hara has a quickie with the too-sober All Saints nurse, Sam (Arjun Gupta), who protests, as they begin kissing frantically, that he has a girlfriend, to which Dr. O’Hara responds, “So do I.” When O’Hara’s relationship with the tv reporter sours, Jackie, who’s been something of an eager, willing witness to the two women’s affair, tells O’Hara she never really liked Sarah, and that she prefers being O’Hara’s “girl.”

Finding lesbian feelings, relationships, or characters peppered across the television spectrum still seems to me a wondrous thing. When I’m feeling optimistic, I have to think it signals an opening of options for women, representations of new choices we might make for ourselves as not just sexual beings, but as people who want certain kinds of relationships, and professions, and families, which may or may not be conventional, regardless of the gender of our partners.

And that’s a good thing.

The Feminist Spectator

Nurse Jackie

This new Showtime series stars Edie Falco as a wry, knowing, harried emergency room nurse. The show offers a terrific vehicle for the versatile actor, as a well-written, smart and funny situation-based character study that takes advantage of Falco’s intelligent, restrained emotional presence and her quirky humor. Unlike network doctor dramas like ER, women characters propel Nurse Jackie’s narratives. Jackie begins each episode with a brief voice-over remark, and then the story continues from her perspective.

Jackie’s best friend at work is Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), an elegant Brit whose arrogance is matched by her intelligence and wit. The upstairs/downstairs aspect of their friendship provides lots of comic fuel—O’Hara often refers casually to how much she spent on various items of clothing, from her $1,200 scarf to her almost as expensive silk stockings.Jackie and her bar-owning husband clearly pinch pennies to make it through their week.Jackie rolls her eyes at her friend’s profligacy, but her indulgence of O’Hara’s class idiosyncrasies emphasizes their bond as women in a professional environment skewed to favor men.

Pompous and powerful male doctors are represented here by Dr. “Coop” Cooper (Peter Facinelli), an Ivy League grad who struts into the ER with a blimp-size ego that Jackie promptly deflates when Coop’s misdiagnosis—against Jackie’s instincts—causes a young patient’s death. After the first few episodes, Jackie’s frequent corrections seem to be bringing Coop into line; he’s cultivating his human side and considering his patients’ emotional needs. In a recent episode he lavished rather sweet attention on an elderly woman on one of her regular trips to the ER from a nursing home. Coop adjusts her wig and compliments her vanity while writing her scrips, even though when she soon expires, he’s out by the nurses’ station boasting of how skillfully he handled his first gunshot wound patient a few curtains down.

Facinelli plays Coop with a dollop of humility and lots of magnanimity, although even he seems uncomfortable with the character’s odd, unconscious tendency to grab women’s breasts when he’s anxious (a completely gratuitous quirk that says more about the producers’ anxiety about the women characters’ strength than Coop’s). This week’s episode revealed that Coop is the son of lesbian parents (deliciously played by Swoozie Kurtz and Blythe Danner), a plot twist that also particularizes and humanizes a character who could be a too stereotypically thoughtless and self-involved heel. O’Hara, in fact, looks at Coop differently once she realizes he has two mothers; the information makes him more than a run-of-the-mill, ambitious male doc.

Nurse Jackie draws all of Jackie’s relationships with men in refreshing, slightly off-beat ways. She’s married to a sweet guy who cares for their two young daughters while he runs the bar they own in Queens. But at work, Jackie removes her wedding band, closets her family life, and carries on a regular sexual liaison with the hospital’s pharmacist, Eddie (Paul Schulze). He not only services her physically (with Jackie always literally on top) but keeps her stocked in the painkillers that make long days of walking hard floors possible. Jackie’s back seems seriously compromised, but the painkillers come with an addiction problem. She snorts Percocet and other opiates in doses small enough to let her function, but regularly enough that her drug use has to become an issue down the narrative line.

Jackie’s secrets, though, keep the character complicated. She never slides into the self-abnegating golden-hearted-but-gruff nurse stereotype that lurks just around the corner of this story. So far, the show avoids that pitfall, gilding Jackie’s essential goodness with enough sardonic cynicism to keep her from being a simple saint. Her first-year student nurse, Zoey (Merritt Wever), offers her a useful foil, as Zoey delivers the platitudes about wanting to help people that drives some idealistic young women and men into nursing in the first place.

Put up against Jackie’s unsentimental pragmatism, Zoey’s enthusiasm plays as funny but not quite ridiculous. The character could easily be the butt of facile jokes—Zoey is a bit chunky, not conventionally beautiful, and too open and cuddly for what proves the ER’s more cut-throat environment. But instead, she gets her own sharp edges. Wever’s loose physicality gives Zoey embodied, character-driven humor; for instance, when O’Hara blithely walks off with Zoey’s new stethoscope, the young nurse’s attempts to retrieve it provide Wever with moments of stuttering explanation and stealthy borrowings that show off Zoey’s agency and nascent power, instead of belittling her as inept.

Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman), Jackie’s nursing colleague, unfortunately bears the burden of race and sexuality in the narrative, a load too heavy for any one actor to carry easily. Sleiman’s features are ethnically ambiguous (his character’s full name is Mohammed de la Cruz), allowing him fill the “colored” slot in the character list, and his slightly fey, gentle presence and willingness to give Zoey fashion advice betray his gayness. Although his easy relationship with Jackie gives Sleiman and Falco some nice moments, so far, Mo-Mo represents still another gay person of color serving the development of the far more centralized white characters, a narrative strategy we could by now all do without.

On the other hand, Anna Deveare Smith makes regular appearances as Mrs. Akalitus, a nurse-turned-hospital administrator now charged with guarding the bottom line. The character is a hard-assed factotum, but Smith brings her, too, subtle off-beat humor. When she borrows what she thinks is a packet of Jackie’s sugar, and unknowingly gets high on the painkillers Jackie has ground up and put into the packet instead, Smith’s performance as the suddenly high and goofy administrator is priceless.

In another episode, Akalitus finds a taser gun lying in the corridor. After she shouts with anger to no one in particular about how irresponsible it is to leave such things lying around, she gets on an elevator and prompting stuns herself with the gun. Her electrified pratfall is hilarious. Watching Smith, who usually plays the steely, powerful, alpha female roles in films and television shows, play a comic character role makes me admire her acting even more.

Many terrific New York-based actors play the ER’s patients and visitors, offering keenly observed turns as the sick and dying and their families. The situations into which they’re written, however, are often predictable and run to stereotypes. For example, in Episode #3, Lynn Cohen is on hand as an elderly Jewish woman who tends to her dying husband’s heart disease with chicken soup. Their scenes are saccharine and lachrymose, their Jewish accents wearying echoes of vaudeville sketches about Jews and their magic ministrations that should be put to rest soon.

Likewise, the Latina mother whose son’s lung collapsed in a playground accident speaks with a thick accent, and her other son is excessively emotionally expressive; the elderly white woman who’s regularly delivered to the ER from her nursing home is vain about her appearance; the tourists from the Mid-West are white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and apologize for everything (even though the woman turns out to be an opium addict, offering a neat mirror for Jackie’s developing habit); and an international diplomat savagely murders a prostitute but can’t be touched, thanks to his legislated immunity. Jackie navigates these characters and their issues deftly, always looking out for the well-deserving underdog and wreaking what vengeance she can on the powerful and evil. But they still remain vehicles in which to drive her character, rather than truly interesting people of their own.

Nurse Jackie swivels from wistful and wry to parodic and satirical fairly quickly. For instance, when Jackie and her husband Kevin attend a meeting at their daughter Grace’s school, the teacher, the school psychologist, and the school nurse are played in high farce and shot from camera angles that make them appear large and confrontational to the prosaic, confused Jackie and Kevin. But the small family’s scenes at home are wistfully realist, as the girls cuddle with Kevin on their parents’ bed watching television while they wait for Jackie to come home at night. The combination of exaggerated and earnest works, asNurse Jackie’s sharp humor oscillates between its poignant observations about the proximity of death to life and its insights about how we navigate all those moments in between.

The Feminist Spectator

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