Monday, August 24, 2009

Nurse Jackie: Season one post-mortem with Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem

When I was at press tour earlier this month, I spent a few minutes talking to "Nurse Jackie" showrunners Liz Brixius (she's the tall one on the left) and Linda Wallem (on the right) about some unanswered questions from the first season (click here for my review of the season finale) and where they see the show going next year. Our conversation coming right up...

Something that's come up with a lot of my readers is about the logistics and the reasons behind Jackie keeping her family a secret from the folks at the hospital. How does she do this? She's been there forever and the kids are not that old. Presumably, she was pregnant at some point.

Brixius: ER nurses, the ones that Linda and I spoke with, you'll do maybe 3 years at St. Luke's, then go up to Harlem and do a thing, then go down to Bellevue. All Saints isn't going to have her entire history.

Wallem: I think people were thrown off by the (Judith Ivey) episode, they thought they had worked together for years. They had, but not necessarily at that hospital. And from our own experience of not being sober, what you do is you compartmentalize with your lies. It fuels the drama. You like to keep things separate. Season two, it's going to be a little harder for her to do that.

Brixius: It's not particularly original for us to say it, but if you build a better mousetrap, you get a smarter mouse. It's fun to watch Jackie navigate her own contraption.

How much, in your minds, does Jackie actually care about Eddie, and how much is she just using him to get the pills?

Brixius: She loves him. That's the complicated part of it all. People will say, 'Well, why would she (do that) with this amazing husband at home?' But you know what happens? You go to work in an ER, and it's like a tour of duty. You're watching people die, every single day, watching people come in with their guts spilled out. All you want to do is save their lives, and you can't go home and tell your husband who runs the bar that this is what your day was, and expect him to understand. But the guy next door in the pharmacy, he was there when you were trying to keep someone out of pain.

Wallem: But also part of being an addict is, whether it's a pill or a drink or a person, more is better. We both have that experience in our sordid past in the '80s.

Well, also the episode where we found out they were high school sweethearts, that clicked something for me: Okay, he's perfect, but it's been forever.

Wallem: Right, and we were trying to have fun also, that Eddie connects with her in an intellectual way.

Brixius: They have conversations about quantum physics.

Wallem: So it's kind of fun that - again, more is better.

First year of a show, there's a learning curve. Are there certain things that, looking back, you thought, 'This really worked, maybe this didn't, maybe more of this, less of that'?

Brixius: No. I think that the show taught us what it was as we were doing it. We had a few pre-conceived notions, like, for example, Zoey was going to be more of a traditional protege, O'Hara was going to be an icy blonde American clinician. When these actors came in, they nailed it in ways that we hadn't imagined, and then the way they inhabited the characters informed what Linda and I saw going forward. So, we don't ever go very far down the road in terms of something we think isn't going to work. We're just following our guts, and that tends to work out nicely.

Wallem: And we were blessed with Showtime's guidance on this. (Network president Robert) Greenblatt is amazing, we get great notes from him.

Brixius: He's guardrails, so we don't go off the road. He'll let us go a while, but he'll put up guardrails if he needs to. Every once in a while he'll go, 'My experience says that won't work, take it another direction.'

The one character who has come under a microscope is Akalitus. It seems like a lot of her stuff is tonally quite different from everything that's happening on the show. Is that something you've noticed? And are you comfortable with that?

Wallem: We are, and it's fun to us because Anna Deavere is an actress who usually plays characters that are so serious. I think you're going to find out more about her next season. Yeah, there were times we tended to get a little wacky with her, but gosh, we had a blast with her.

Brixius: And we like the wackiness, because what we're trying to do in a half an hour is convey the total absurdity of what an emergency room is like. You can't have Jackie play absurd, because Edie's not an absurd actress, ever. O'Hara has her own levels of absurdity, Zoey has her kind, but everything they deal with was very dire. So if you need comic relief, a really fun and surprising place to get it from would not necessarily be the hospital administrator, because that's a little on the Hot Lips (from "M*A*S*H") side, but if Anna Deavere Smith is playing that, it goes against any expectation you've ever had of her, and she's genius. So it's fun.

The actress you got to play the older daughter, Grace, is so good.

Wallem: Isn't she amazing? Ruby. She amazes us. To be able to grasp what's going on, that young. We are thrilled with her.

And she has me very worried, though. I watch her watching her mom sing "Up On the Roof" and I think, "Uh-oh."

Wallem: I know. And next season, we're dealing more with the anxiety. What do you do with a kid who has this anxiety disorder? We've gotten a lot of feedback from parents whose kids (have it), and they've been very thankful. We were bent on not doing your typical cute, well-scrubbed kids. We're really pleased with how they came out.

Thematically, what would you say the story of this season was, and what territory do you want to explore next year?

Brixius: Thematically, this let us introduce to you the chaos of an ER through this one woman's life. That was it. Opening up what that world is. Next year is...

Wallem: ...more of her life. It's what she has to do...

Brixius: deal with the consequences of season one.


Myles said...

Nurse Jackie, it appears, is just like my Masters thesis: it sounds good when you have the person writing it talking about it, tying things together, but the product being put out doesn't seem to be able to communicate that to people.

I just didn't see much of this from the season as a whole, especially the finale. They claim that the first season was about establishing the "chaos" of the ER, but that doesn't mean the show had to be as chaotic and uneven as it was. The sign of a true piece of strong television comedy is that it isn't reaching to be funny (See: Akalitus), and that it does have to embody its theme so as to make it apparent.

They've got Edie Falco as their lead, and some amazing performers in the rest of the cast, and yet it's all being squandered. I posit in my own review that the finale felt quite similar to a Weeds finale, but that show never had a cast like this, and never felt like it had as much dramatic potential being wasted.

And as for their plans for Season 2...those are not plans. I want plans.

Jack said...

That interview does not fill me with confidence. It doesn't appear that either showrunner understands the shows problems, so there's little chance of them being fixed for season 2.

belidna said...

I agree. The show is pretty uneven, though I do like Falco (and the rest of the cast mostly) enough to keep watching. And I cannot agree more that Akalitus is the most problematic character on the show - she always ends up with these wacky scenarios that are neither believable or fun to watch. Mostly they stick out like a sore thumb.

I hope they do fix it up somehow.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad, Alan, that your review pointed out how much of the show just comes off as underwritten rather than mysterious. I think too many people are praising the show for not spoonfeeding its audience, when in reality it's not doing enough to justify the actions of its characters.

JanieJones said...

The interview fills me with a bit of trepidation as to how S2 will be formed. There are many gaps that need to be filled. I realize it's a process but S1 did not even paint half of a picture. There were several good episodes but overall, as everyone has stated, it was very uneven.
The real chaos of a NY ER Hospital would show a multitude of patients with too few nurses.
Falco will definitely keep me tuned in for next season. Wever did a fabulous job; her comedic timing is impeccable. I do enjoy most of the cast. Smith's Akalitus character is one that also throws me off balance while watching. The humor does not seem to fit with the show.
Last night's finale did little for me.
However, I hope for a stronger, more cohesive Season 2.
I am curious as to how they continue to address Grace's anxiety disorder. I have a distinct feeling that she is going to get worse. The young actress does a lovely job with her portrayal.

Anonymous said...

I think Nurse Jackie is perfection. I enjoy all the performances. Yes there is a mystery to how Nurse Jackie got the way she is but there is also much revealed every episode about the quality of relationships between people - so that I always feel satisfied at the end of the half hour.

christy said...

The Akalitus issue is really bizarre. It's not just that she's so much more sitcommy than any of the other characters, but she's also just weirdly separate from the rest of the show. She's often alone, or interacting with characters that are there only to play off her (the lost baby and its family, for instance). It really is like she's in her own little show that's not even the same show.

Overall, though, I can't complain a bit about a show with such a large number of absolutely astounding performances. Bea Arthur's death made me wish for another show that truly had women at its heart--varied, authentic, funny women--and the triple whammy of Falco, Wever, and Best really delivered me that wish. Not to mention the actresses who play the daughters and the amazing guest actresses they've had, especially on Tiny Bubbles. I love it.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with several of the comments above mentioning that the interview doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. When the response to negative feedback about a jarring and poorly written gag character is to mention that it was fun for them, I can't see things improving. Falco is great, and a few of the supporting cast are solid, but for the most part it feels like it's been pieced together out of others shows. 12 episodes in and I feel like I've only seen the pilot of a real show. I'll be waiting for critics to weigh in on the start of season 2 before I worry about following along.

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

I thought the finale was pretty disappointing, and overall, the season wasn't compelling enough for me to keep Showtime when my free trial period expires.

Eyeball Wit said...

In terms of its "chaos" Nurse Jackie reminds me more of E/R (the short-lived sitcom with Eliot Gould) rather than ER the drama which lasted 20 seasons, and did a pretty good job of evoking chaos (if often little else.)

I hate to tell the showrunners, but there's very little sense that the pressures of the job drove Jackie to this, at least after we've seen more sorrow and horror and just plain activity in 10 minutes every Thursday night at County General on ER, than they gave us in a season of Nurse J.

I couldn't agree more about how bad the Akalitus stuff is. She's the "Kerry Weaver" in this universe. But while Weaver was sometimes mean, and short-sighted and sometimes the butt of a joke or a plot arc, she never seemed clueless.

That's exactly what they've handed poor ADS. Her scenes are really painful to watch, and it doesn't get worse than getting stuck in the elevator with a cell phone and not knowing who to call. As David Chase said, viewers will follow a character a long way if they're really good at what they're doing.

Coop and his bad Tom Cruise imitation is just as distracting. His performance is like something out of MAD TV.

I literally cringe every time I see either of these characters, and that's a huuuuuge problem.

There's much to like here--Edie Falco, Eddie, Best, the kids, Edie Falco, Edie Falco, the husband, and Edie Falco.
But couldn't we pleeeease get a helicopter to fall on Coop and Mrs. Akalitus and put them out of our misery?

Mike F said...

Good questions, Alan...but the answers struck me as puzzling. I was hoping for more here...perhaps they don't want to be self-critical publicly...

This board is a pretty great focus group, from my experience...and they don't have to agree that anything in particular wasn't working this year, but they sound as if they're perfectly happy with a show that obviously struggled to achieve what it is they admittedly set out to achieve.

Was the interview done in a non-serious way or just on the fly? It doesn't appear they took the criticisms to heart in the least.

Anonymous said...

With a show in which the protagonist is more of a sociopath than a mere "flawed" character, I find the comic relief of Akalitus to be one of the few bright spots in the show. She was indeed too clueless in the first season, but not so in the second season, and I find her more of a draw than ever. Nurse Jackie herself is repugnant to me in the first season, so I'm looking forward to some actual direction for her character instead of mere self-appeasement in the second season.