Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Nurse Jackie" and "HawthoRNe" Bring Nurses to the Forefront in Prime Time

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

After years of taking a back seat to doctors on medical dramas from "St. Elsewhere" to "Grey's Anatomy," nurses are finally having their moment in the sun, with the debut of "HawthoRNe" (TNT, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime, Mondays at 10:30 Eastern).

While the two programs vary wildly in tone and approach, they do agree on a two basic principals: In the four walls of the hospital, (1) nurses are the true heroes, and (2) doctors are pompous and ineffectual. Being admitted to a hospital after watching either of these shows would be like going for an ocean swim after watching "Jaws."

The one-hour drama "HawthoRNe" stars Jada Pinkett Smith (she also is an executive producer) as Christina Hawthorne, the chief nursing officer of a hospital in Richmond, Va. In the pilot, it is the one-year anniversary of the death of her husband, and through dribs and drabs we can kind of piece together that he was suffering from cancer (early in the episode, a friend of his, also a cancer patient, calls Christina into the hospital in the middle of the night so that he can say goodbye before throwing himself off the roof; he survives the fall, though), and that Christina was somehow complicit in his death (her cold mother-in-law, Amanda, played by Joanna Cassidy of "Six Feet Under," implies this fact, and Christina's high-school-age daughter, Camille, played by Hannah Hodson, is even more blunt about it).

We are supposed to accept Christina as a rebel who will gladly fight the power structure to do what is right (something Camille has learned, since the first time we see her, she has chained herself to a vending machine at school to protest its removal, even though she doesn't eat any of the junk food it contains). In an early scene, Christina bypasses a new security guard that doesn't recognize her so she can get to the roof to try and prevent her husband's friend's suicide. (She is later arrested for it.)

As Christina walks around the hospital, it's as if she should have a halo around her head. All of the working people seem to look to her to solve their problems. Her beneficence extends from her nurses down to the maintenance guy who complains that he has to use cheap disinfectant (of course, Christina tells him she'll do what she can to get him better/safer products).

There is one plot point in "HawthoRNe" that reveals exactly what kind of program it is: A nurse, Ray Stein (David Julian Hirsh), figures out that the course of treatment prescribed by the disengaged, self-involved and pompous Dr. Marshall (Anne Ramsey of "Mad About You") for a soldier with diabetes is incorrect. Ray pages the doctor, who is on a golf course, to express his concerns, but Dr. Marshall scolds him for bothering her and not following her instructions. Ray then follows her instructions. I wonder if there was a single viewer who didn't know what would happen next: The patient goes into a seizure, and Dr. Marshall blames Ray, with Christina having to come to his defense. I'm all for highlighting the achievements and sacrifices of nurses, but doing so in such a cartoonishly simple and telegraphed way doesn't accomplish the goal.

Christina is an understanding best friend to fellow nurse Bobbie (Suleka Mathew), who says she's "damaged goods" when asked out by a paramedic, but we later find out she is hiding a secret from him: She has a prosthetic leg, something we comically find out when a crazed man accidentally stabs her in the leg, eliciting no reaction from Bobbie since there is only the prosthesis under her scrubs. Christina makes her feel beautiful and eventually gives her the courage to accept a date with her suitor (even wearing a dress that reveals her metal prosthesis, presumably because the more leg-like one is being repaired after the attack). Christina is also the only person who gives the time of day to Isabel (Aisha Hinds), a homeless woman who hangs out by the hospital, which comes in handy when Isabel shows Christina she has a newborn baby, which eventually turns out to be Isabel's (Christina chides herself for not noticing that under her layers of clothing, Isabel was pregnant).

In a nutshell, this is Christina: When she is asked in a moment of crisis, "Whose side are you on?", she declares, "Right now, the patient's."

Would we want Christina to be the chief nursing officer at any hospital in which we found ourselves? Hell, yeah. But that doesn't mean watching her walk around the hospital like the second coming of Gandhi is all that interesting in a scripted television program.

TNT has already launched two edgy one-hour dramas featuring flawed female leads (played by actresses with film careers), with Holly Hunter's alcoholic, sexually active cop in "Saving Grace," and Kyra Sedgwick's bristly sugar-addicted detective in "The Closer," and I have no doubt that "HawthoRNe" was designed to slide comfortably into this mold. Christina is portrayed as a rebel, she curses (I didn't know you could say "bull shit" on TNT in the 9:00 p.m. block), she fights with her daughter, and she may have killed her husband.

But, in execution, "HawthoRNe" is not the least bit edgy, with all of its rough surfaces dutifully sanded down to a smooth finish. Christina may fight hospital battles, but in administrator Dr. Thomas Wakefield (Michael Vartan, who must be wondering why he has so little to do), she has an understanding and admiring ear. She may fight with her daughter, but that doesn't stop Camille from saying she loves Christina before leaving for her father's memorial dinner. If Christina did help her husband die, it was only because he was, as she hints, in a lot of pain. Even her killing is merciful. And Pinkett Smith, while a fine actress, isn't going to add any edge to "HawthoRNe." There is something inherently polished about her at this point in her career, so much so that it prevents her from entering the lower-depths territory Sedgwick and Hunter reach on their shows.

"HawthoRNe" isn't a bad show. It is competently written and acted. But it's just kind of dull, predictable and rehashed.

Even though the 30-minute "Nurse Jackie" is more edgy than "HawthoRNe," it suffers from some of the same ills, namely predictability and painting the doctor-nurse relationship in broad strokes.

The pilot begins with Jackie (Edie Falco, Carmela on "The Sopranos") in a drug-induced stupor, lying on a table in an all-white room, and in all-white clothing, with a literal haze in the air in her psychedelic vision. She explains in a voice over how she needs a precise amount of Oxycontin to start the day (she has a back problem), and she quotes one of the sisters who taught her in school to precisely enunciate her vision of herself:

"The people with the greatest capacity for good are the ones with the greatest capacity for evil."

And to reveal the tone of the show, Jackie adds, "Smart fuckin' nun."

Like Christina in "HawthoRNe," Jackie is the go-to savior at the hospital, so much so that new nurse Zoe (Merritt Wever of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") tells her in the pilot, "I think you're a saint." And in the hospital, Jackie is a saint, if, of course, you believe that the ends justify the means. She forges a donor card so that a dead bike messenger's organs can be used to help others. She steals money from a Libyan diplomat who badly slashed a prostitute in his limo (he can't be prosecuted for his attack due to diplomatic immunity) and gives it to the pregnant girlfriend of the dead bike messenger (she said he left her with nothing and asked Jackie if she can have one of his donated organs to sell on the black market). And she flushes the diplomat's detached ear down the toilet before it can be reattached after he expresses no regret for his actions (he says the woman liked being cut).

Jackie is also having an affair with one of the doctors, one minute sharing a frantic quickie with him in the lab, but later tenderly telling him she loves him (after he gave her soda, a Moon Pie, and, finally, what she really wants, drugs, for her ailing back). Only, you don't know it's an extramarital affair until the last scene of the pilot, when she returns home to her two daughters and her husband, who has made her a pancake dinner (which is especially poignant, when you consider that the bike messenger's girlfriend told Jackie earlier that he had made her pancakes for breakfast on the morning of his death). Jackie even gives her kids the Moon Pie to share, and the casual way she does it struck me as pretty powerful. It would have been even more affecting if not for the fact that seconds earlier, in a voice over, Jackie talks about St. Augustin and the mix of good and evil in a person. It was a bit on the nose, and the embrace of an "I'm not ready to be good yet" attitude made her less relatable (which, in this case, is more important than being likable).

Despite possessing an edge lacking in "HawthoRNe," "Nurse Jackie" was a bit too simplistic and predictable for my tastes. Like in "HawthoRNe," the doctors are portrayed as idiots who get in Jackie's way when trying to take care of her patients. In a scene nearly identical to the one I described in "HawthoRNe," when the bike messenger is brought in, Jackie examines him, but when Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) arrives (talking into his Bluetooth about how great St. Barts is), he condescendingly brushes aside Jackie's concern that the patient has internal bleeding. So it's no surprise in the next scene when we find out that the bike messenger has died.

Even Jackie's doctor friend Elenor (Eve Best) is self-involved, arguing that Jackie became a nurse because she cares about people, while she became a doctor because she likes to know how stuff works (talking about how she cut open a dead rabbit as a kid). When, at lunch at a restaurant, a diner starts to choke, the two debate which of them should help, with, of course, Jackie finally doing so.

"Nurse Jackie" does a good job of presenting a conflicted, multi-dimensional protagonist. It's pretty daring to offer up a caring nurse who also happens to be a drug addict cheating on her husband. You only wish the show did so in the context of a world (the hospital, mainly) that was as multi-faceted and interesting as the main character is.

"Nurse Jackie" and "HawthoRNe" are giving nurses their moment in the TV sun, but you can't help wishing the programs were better.