Nurse Jackie is the new M*A*S*H, which may or may not make Edie Falco the new Alan Alda. Liz Brixius, who co-created the dark comedy about a drug-addicted but dedicated nurse (running on the Movie Network), has said that she wanted the show to “hit that M*A*S*H spot.” She told Maclean’s that the creators wanted to pay tribute to that and other 1970s shows like All in the Family, TV that reflected the mood of a nation “being crippled by inflation and still at war with Vietnam.” We’re ready for a show in that ’70s style, because our era is just as depressing as the ’70s.
The influence of M*A*S*H is most obvious in Nurse Jackie’s setting and format. They’re both half-hour shows about hospitals, where some of the stories are played for laughs and others are played seriously (some storylines are both serious and comic). The two shows use humour as a release valve for people in high-pressure situations; the point, Brixius explains, is that “they develop a sense of gallows humour” in response to the “tragedy and absurdity” of their environment. When Jackie gets revenge on an evil patient by flushing his ear down the toilet, it’s a more violent version of the tricks Hawkeye used to play on the villains—poetic justice for pay cable.
Another thing that marks Nurse Jackie as a ’70s throwback is the presence of a lead character fighting against uncaring or inept superiors. Jackie isn’t goofy like the doctors on M*A*S*H—in some ways she’s more like Hot Lips, the angry but intelligent head nurse—but like Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, she frequently breaks the rules to help patients; she’s what Brixius calls “an outlaw advocate trying to figure out how best to help people within this system.” Brixius says that this kind of character also has roots in dark movie comedies from the ’70s, particularly Paddy Chayefsky’s film The Hospital, starring George C. Scott as a doctor trying to keep his sanity in the horrible world of health care. “When you look at those films,” she says, “you’ve got this seasoned and slightly outraged character in the middle of a flawed and crumbling institution.” On Nurse Jackie, the formula is the same; it’s just that the health care system is even worse than it was in the ’70s.
The advantage of this approach is that it allows for a fresher look at a clichéd setting—and there’s no setting more clichéd than a hospital. Today, just like in the early ’70s, most hospital shows are glamorized; Brixius points out that on House, “the equipment is new and the rooms are huge.” By using a M*A*S*H-style half-hour format and making the hospital a dirty, desperate place, Nurse Jackie can take on typical hospital stories—the kind you might see on Grey’s Anatomy—but from what critic Myles McNutt (memles.wordpress.com) calls “a slightly darker, and therefore slightly better, perspective.”
Still, Nurse Jackie hasn’t “hit the M*A*S*H spot” quite yet, especially when it comes to balancing comedy and drama. Unlike M*A*S*H, which emphasized verbal humour, Nurse Jackie often veers into outright silliness. In one scene, the hospital administrator (Anna Deavere Smith) mistakes Jackie’s drugs for artificial sweetener; in another, in which the same character accidentally tasers herself, Brixius says the producers debated about whether to use “the footage of her flailing around in the elevator” before deciding to go for it. She adds that audiences will get used to the mix of heavy moments and sitcom slapstick: “When it’s done right, people will say, ‘oh, that’s just the voice of the show’ instead of ‘oh, they don’t have a handle on things.’ We do have a handle on it; that’s just what we like.” But for now, it sometimes feels as if the comedy sequences have wandered in from another show.
But then M*A*S*H wasn’t at its best in its first season, either, and Nurse Jackie might have time to improve: the first episode got such good ratings that the show was immediately picked up for another year. Meanwhile, other networks are beginning to realize that there’s a market for ’70s-throwback shows: AMC just green-lit Rubicon, a political conspiracy thriller paying tribute to post-Watergate movies like Three Days of the Condor. Brixius says that today’s audiences might want escapism at the movies, but at home, “you want to turn on your TV and see what you have, not what you don’t have. I don’t think you want to watch Dynasty when your house is being foreclosed on.” Of course, by that logic, we might get a bunch of ’80s throwback shows when things get better. What a scary thought.