Thursday, August 13, 2009
The Wonderfully Fucked Up and Brilliant NURSE JACKIE
One of the biggest surprises this summer on TV has been Nurse Jackie. It's a tough, caring, complex, involving bullet of 24 minutes each week. It proves, again, why Showtime, in many ways, is more daring than HBO in terms of taking pay programming chances and delivering more honest and watch-worthy shows.
I write screenplays. Never sold or optioned anything, but I have studied with ALL of the masters. You name a 'screenwriting guru' and I've read their book, been to their seminar, paid for their DVD's or enrolled in their classes, always on the hunt for the answer.
This is the answer - there is no answer. There are good guides out there, but there is no answer. Story is the answer and character is the answer. And structure (screenwriters love to go on and on about structure at the sacrifice of art - but that's my bone to pick).
I once asked the now-deceased Blake Snyder (of 'Save The Cat' fame, a system of deconstructing movie story structure many writers rabidly follow at the cost of their own individuality) how he came up with all of the stuff in between the many, many points in a story a writer must hit in order for a story to be 'successful'. He said, 'That's where the art comes in."
One of the biggest fallacies in movies and TV is the main character has to be 'likable'. I've lived in NYC for years and only know writers in NYC and most of them are cranky and balk at the idea of Hollywoodish screenwriters needing their main characters to be 'likable'. They think it means selling out and writing characters to make cranky studio executives happy and soccer moms in Idaho gush. I've read reams of books on how to make a character like Travis Bickle (from "Taxi Driver", a thoroughly disturbing and unrelenting work of questionable 'art'), and most of them miss the point.
Nurse Jackie is a good example. This woman is the head nurse at a fictitious hospital in Manhattan ("All Saints" - how great is that?). She is a loving mother to her two daughters, one of which has anxiety disorder. She is loving and supportive of her hot, cute husband. He is loving and adoring to her. She is always cutting corners at her job at the expense of the system but never at the expense of the patient. She is truly an 'all saint' in how she is always looking out for everyone else.
Except she has a drug addiction, lies about being married at work, fucks the local pharmacist to feed her addiction, lies to her boss, her best friend, steals money to pay for illegal medical expenses and lives such a complete double life everyone watching knows soon, she will crash and burn in a spectacular way.
But we love her and respect her the entire time and turn away knowing she'll have to pay the price soon. Or will she?
It's true, one of the reasons we love her is because Edie Falco is in it. The woman can do no wrong. She's so good it's breathtaking. She is real, she is a woman, not a character. Also, the tone of the show is wonderfully 'non-TV'. It's glossy and pretty but realistic. It's got guts. As Blake Snyder might have said, 'it's art'.
Although the writing is spot-on and the acting is pretty amazing, the reason the show really takes off is the directors they've been able to nab. Scott Ellis, Steve Buschemi and Craig Zisk? Are you kidding? These guys are directors at the top of their game. NYC talent making a NYC-worthy show. The producers are smart - hire a great lead actor, give her a fucked up main character who is very human and surround her with directors who don't direct TV and understand nuance...art.
Also, Merritt Wever (a NYC theater actress turned TV star - she can act because she came from the theater NOT Beverly Hills High) is fairly breathtaking as Zoey Barkow. Ms. Wever teeters just on the bring of being ridiculous but pulls it back and makes her character so very human. She is the moral center of the show, the stable force, the 'fool' as so many screenwriting books like to call her. The one no one takes seriously but shows everyone in the end the true lessons in life.
Haaz Sleiman is in it as well. His character's name is Mohammed "Mo-Mo" De La Cruz. I have a hard time concentrating when Mr. Sleiman is on the screen. He's so handsome it's a bit unnerving. I am praying the writers will put in an ER-like moment of complete unbelievabile and have a helicopter crash into the ER or perhaps a secret arsonist so Mr. Sleiman will be forced to run around for an episode with his shirt off.
Seriously, Mr. Sleiman is wasted on the show. He's the funny, acerbic and hot gay character who does nothing but make witty remarks. I wonder why the writers waste him as they do? He was so very, very good in the sublime movie, "The Visitor." Great movie, great acting, great, great story.
Jackie is entirely fucked up but she's entirely human. Some people think her character is taken to the extreme, but I think she's the kind of model we need for movies and TV now. So many characters are so damn baseline sweet and nice, it's impossible to associate with them. Rather than pour over books on how to make characters complex and 'likable', writers and viewers need to watch fictional characters like this...ones who are LIVING.
The show has 2 more episodes before it ends and I, for one, am glued to the TV. Everyone should be. Writers and viewers alike.