By: Aleks Chan
Summer television is all about the girl. Correction: all about the cable girls. Yes, cable has found itself a reliable refuge for film actresses to find work that is ostensibly of the caliber they are used to – thus Holly Hunter as a spry, hedonistic Oklahoma City detective, Kyra Sedgwick as a master interrogator, and Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban pot dealing widow. This month Edie Falco – whose film career is outsized by the grandeur of her work on THE SOPRANOS – and Jada Pinkett Smith – wife of Will and of The Matrix trilogy – join the throes as nurses predisposed to be snappy and impassioned to help their patients.
Our attention is first turned to simply suthun’ Kyra Sedgwick on THE CLOSER (returns tonight at 9 pm est on TNT), where she plays “Depewty Cheef Brendalee Johnson,” of the LAPD. If hadn’t already been implied, her character is from the south, which somehow demands such a drawl that half of what she says can hardly be taken seriously. Twice as befuddling is how Brenda is venerated for her ability to elicit a confession that holds up in court, because the cases are so easy, a children’s program with slimmer plot workings would be more challenging. In the fifth season premiere, the humdinger of a homicide hinges on street addresses. Other plot points of the season include Brenda’s cat falling ill, Lt. Provenza (G.W. Bailey) gets a girlfriend, and Mary McDonnell guest stars as a internal affairs officer. It has thankfully scaled back Brenda’s junk food addiction (I couldn’t handle another sensuous bite into a Ho-Ho), but by a fifth season, you’d think it would’ve have progressed to something more than outline of an actual TV show.
SAVING GRACE (returns next Tuesday at 10 pm est on TNT) quite oppositely has become more realized in its third season: Grace (the slick, sinewy Holly Hunter, who looks she’s having a thrill of a ride), reeling from Leon Cooley’s execution last season (who shared her last chance angel Earl, played by DEADWOOD’s Leon Rippey with palpable zest), she’s in search of girl who shares her prophetic visions, while her partner (THE SHIELD’s Kenneth Johnson, so rightly deserving the role) finalizes his divorce. Like THE CLOSER, GRACE’s crimes are so straightforward that they’re irrelevant, but this – and even the cosmic, religious undertones – are shaken aside by Hunter and the stellar cast, who seem so passionate and willing to play the part of law skirting, sometimes drunken hooligans who fight crime, that it’s just a great show on its own.
And where good intentions turn into seemingly inescapable traps: the fifth season of Showtime’s WEEDS (returns tonight at 10 pm est), where Nancy Botwin has uprooted her family – and her marijuana business – from the posh digs of suburbia to a border town overrun with drug and arms trafficking, and where Nancy has found herself pregnant with the Mexican mayor who happens to be the drug lord she screwed over with the DEA. Last season’s locale change was appreciable – you have to give it credit for at least trying to shake things up after seasons of steady, comical work. But now it seems to have been for not: Nancy has become so turgidly unlikeable, she makes Meredith Grey’s naval-gazing seem like charity work. The supporting cast (including Kevin Nealon’s continually stoned Doug and the two perfectly competent actors who play her sons) are no longer integral to the overall plot, and Elizabeth Perkin’s Celia may have finally crossed over into story line too overwrought for TV territory with a offensively unfunny hostage situation. What’s worth seeing (at least in the first three episodes made available by Showtime) is Nancy’s stoner-cum-lothario brother-in-law Andy (the great Justin Kirk) bubbling relationship with Nancy’s sister Jill (a surprisingly funny Jennifer Jason Leigh) – they’re drawn together for their love-hate of Nancy’s behavior.
As for the new girls, Jada Pinkett Smith mostly goes for staid coziness on HAWTHORNE (debuts next Tuesday at 9 pm est on TNT) where Edie Falco goes for a dark and druggy mix on NURSE JACKIE (debuts tonight at 10:30 pm est on Showtime). Both play health care professionals in hospital dramas that rely on comedic diversions to move them along – at which NURSE JACKIE excels and HAWTHORNE mostly stumbles over. As Christina Hawthorne, Pinkett Smith is supposed to be a tough, compassionate, don’t-f—-with-me Chief Nursing Officer, but so far her face hasn’t quite shown the emotive range to be anything but the latter, hanging on blurry screen overlays to seem “pensive.” Her supporting cast is dull, dull, dull, and actually say things like, “I’m damaged goods. You don’t wanna go out with me.” But besides the aforementioned groaner, the pilot is steady, a minor feat worth applauding.
Edie Falco, with her short mannish hair, is like a sharp blade of pragmatic cynicism; as Jackie Peyton, a nurse at All Saints Hospital in New York City, she doesn’t have time or the desire for the uplift and earnestness of typical medical shows. “I don’t do chatty. I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people,” she explains to Zoey (the wonderfully screwy Merritt Wever), the new nurse with pink bunny scrubs. Jackie, anti-heroine with a knack for healing people, is the latest in the Showtime cadre of characters with premium cable problems: she harbors a deep addiction to prescription painkillers (a casualty of working on her feet all day, her back is constantly killing her) and is sleeping with the pharmacist who doesn’t know she’s married with two kids.
Of all the shows that boast they are not what their banal premise entails – hospital drama, cop comedy, procedural – but are actually about the characters, NURSE JACKIE is the only one of this bunch that actually succeeds. In effect, it’s one giant character study, if a little murky in its ambitions: it tackles addiction, marriage, family, and morality, but isn’t quite sure what it’s tying to say about any of them. Really, we have no idea what drives Jackie to be who she is. The first half of the season (Showtime sent six of 12 episodes) goes great with caustic humor and smart writing; the second half is where the storytelling will (hopefully) start moving.
The Closer: C-; Saving Grace: B+; Weeds: C; Hawthorne: C+; Nurse Jackie: B+