Tara and Jackie: messed-up, gutsy, real

There’s a tall woman, fortysomething, staring right at you. Skeptical look on her face. You know what’s she’s thinking: “Life is full of little pricks.”

When Nurse Jackie (TMN/Movie Central, 10 p.m.) first aired last year, Showtime promoted it to U.S. viewers with billboards bearing that provocative slogan – and a shot of a nurse with a needle. The show’s star, Edie Falco as the formidable wife of Tony Soprano. Here she was, returning to TV as a formidably complex nurse, a woman brutally sarcastic to doctors and brazenly manipulating patients she didn’t like.

It turned out that this event was more than an actress managing to follow one extraordinary role with another. The arrival of Jackie, and United States of Tara (TMN/Movie Central, 10:30 p.m.) was further evidence of the strength and importance of cable TV drama. It is such shows that tell us about the vast, chaotic canvas of reality. It is such dramas that emphasize, again, how feeble network shows have become. These shows are art; both declare a willingness to engage with ugliness and despair. They are a vastly different form of escapism than what appears on network television. With these shows, the viewer is escaping the inanity of formulaic, conventional TV.

In the case of Nurse Jackie the marketing slogan was perfectly apt. The show, with Falco as its fulcrum, emerged as a tough-minded hospital drama, one lacking in McDreamy-type doctors and stick-figure, husband-chasing nurses. One element that made it different was its emphatic working-class milieu. Jackie, complicated and provocative, was a worker worried about bills and the money to make it through the next month.

Edie Falco plays Jackie Peyton in the gritty Nurse Jackie.

In its second season Nurse Jackie is an even better show. It’s darker and firmly focused on Jackie’s ruthless lying and deception. She’s an addict and she’s fooled a hospital pharmacist into an affair that ended badly. There is little sunshine and no sign of a feel-good future for Jackie.

And then there’s Tara (Toni Collette), on United States of Tara. Written by Diablo Cody, who wrote the movie JunoTara also arrived last year – a drama about a suburban mother and wife with “multiple personality disorder.” She morphed from Tara to disruptive teen, to scarily uptight, fastidious mom, to an equally scary guy named Butch, a rough Vietnam vet. Her family just learned to live with it.

Tara was an obviously emblematic figure – even the title told you that she represented the neurotic complexity of the United States. Mind you, there was a vaguely gimmicky quality to the premise. While it was breathtaking to watch Collette switch from one character to another, it was also distracting. In the new episodes that start tonight, Tara is on medication and her “alternative” selves seem to have disappeared.

This makes Tara and her family very happy. But nothing is quite what it seems. A neighbour commits suicide and this, it turns out, is the trigger for a journey into the underbelly of suburban life. There is a strong suggestion in the first two episodes that a bleak situation is about to become bleaker.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that both outstanding series feature female characters at their core. Yes, women are the desired audience, as is the case in so much TV. But these two shows only underline that women are ill-served by network TV drama. The fictional framework used for most TV drama featuring women has a fairy-tale quality – everything moves mechanically toward that feel-good ending. On Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara the narrative movement is reversed – the drama starts on the surface and goes deeper, and bleaker. As every fortysomething woman knows, life really is full of as many pricks as kicks.

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