Understanding why critics went gaga for Nurse Jackie when the hospital dramedy debuted on Showtime last year is a no-brainer. It had all the right elements: incredible work by Emmy-winner Edie Falco in her first series since The Sopranos, wonderful supporting turns by theater greats Eve Best and Anna Deavere Smith and TV regulars Paul Schulze and Peter Facinelli, bold writers who weren’t afraid to express exactly how they felt about controversial topics like assisted suicide (pro) and insurance companies (against), and it was all wrapped up in assured directing by The Office veteran Paul Feig and actor Steve Buscemi, among others. The first season of Nurse Jackie was such a crowning achievement that it made you adore a main character who cheated on her husband and treated patients while hopped up on OxyContin, and that let you laugh while never, ever once diminishing the torture that is having a health crisis. It wasn’t ER, but it wasn’t Scrubs either.
So it’s difficult to diagnose why season two, with all the abovementioned factors still intact, doesn’t seem as fabulous. It’s not the unexplained absence of Haaz Sleiman’s gay nurse Mo-Mo; he may have been close to Jackie’s heart (listening to her rants about the other doctors, backing her up at every turn, offering a voice of reason at the strangest moments, and just basically looking very good), but he’s surprisingly easily replaced by Arjun Gupta’s newbie nurse Sam, who fans will remember as the drug-addled temp Jackie hypocritically fired in season one. The tensions fostered by her jealously over Sam’s newfound sobriety and her fears that he’s sussed out her own painkiller addiction are welcome additions to the show, which had become too comfortable with Jackie’s ability to hide her narcotics problem from dozens of medical professionals.
But this time around, Nurse Jackie no longer feels realistic. When we previously saw Jackie, her boyfriend (Schulze’s pharmacist Eddie) had buddied up to her unsuspecting husband, she’d lost her easy access to drugs as the hospital installed an automatic and heavily regulated pill-dispensing machine, silly Dr. Cooper (Facinelli) was painfully crushing on her, her fifth grade daughter had become crippled by an anxiety disorder, and her closest friend, Dr. O’Hara (Best), was losing her mom. Not your typical day-to-day issues, but the plotlines were at least gritty and real. This season, we get kind Eddie’s quick and evil descent into utter madness—inserting himself into Jackie’s family gatherings, antagonizing her in front of her husband, blackmailing her with disclosing affair—and her near-violent reactions to him. O’Hare engages in a doomed affair with a rich, glamorous, and famous newscaster that comes off like a tacked-on bit of bad romance. And Dr. Cooper becomes the face of the hospital’s ill-advised ad campaign; it’s funny, but it was actually already done on Scrubs.
Nurse Jackie‘s only saving graces are the plotline involving her daughter, whose admission that she needs help, at only 10-years-old, is tear-jerking, and the show’s continuing bold and unwavering statements on those sticky health care issues. According to the series, if you don’t side with Jackie when she defies doctor’s orders and gives a cancer stricken patient medical marijuana, then you really have no soul—which makes us hope the show gets its own back STAT.