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Jackie and Tara, welcome back

In television on 03/22/2010 at 10:38 am

Two half-hour cable dramas make their second-season returns tonight (March 22) on The Movie Network.

First, let me address the newcomers: If you’ve never seen Nurse Jackie (the one about the junkie adulterer nurse starring Edie Falco) or the United States of Tara (the one about the split personality, played by Toni Collette, and her sorta regular-type-crazy family), don’t worry. You are covered by the ample “previously on …” intros that kick off both returns.

To the fans who have been jonesing for tonight’s returns since last summer’s finale, let us all give thanks. Mostly.

The half-hour drama is a tricky proposition. Like short stories, they have to cover a lot of ground in a short time or (often the better option) they have to cover one small arc or movement very well and very intensely.

While Nurse Jackie is my favourite of the two, it is the less successful I think, covering too much ground, sapping its intensity and momentum. The Season 1 finale was brilliant: Jackie’s lover Eddie drunkenly revealed he not only knew she was married but had introduced himself to her husband and Jackie’s response was to hack into the new drug dispensing robot and down morphine or what have you, swooning, flat on the floor. Would she overdose? Would she hallucinate into another religious tableau? The oh-my-god suspense was crushed by … a bug, on the ceiling. Once again, although she provides expert care for her patients, Falco’s acid Jackie has had made all the weakest, unkindest decisions for those closest to her — the cuckolded husband, the daughter who absorbs all the anxiety that Jackie should claim, the avoided ex-pharmacist lover who is no longer convenient — and survived without a mark on her. But for how long, the finale begged. However, the Season 2 return seems, at least, to have blown all that dramatic tension.

Jackie cuddles on the beach with her family, returns to work to find herself charged with warning staff not to abuse the drug-dispensing robot and discovers that the doper male nurse who had her number last season (“Takes one to know one.”) has returned after completing a recovery program but seems content not to confront her. Jackie’s daughter’s anxiety is back, worse than ever; doctor pal O’Hara is in full, flagrant (of course hilarious) grief mode over her mother’s passing; and assinine doctor Cooper has declared war on Jackie after she spurns him yet again.

All these things hold the potential to split Jackie’s world apart, but these (too numerous?) story ribbons just float. Eddie too makes a return and I thought this would kick the show into a higher gear, but not. The first couple of episodes are just treading water.

The silver lining — though I hope the show doesn’t coast on this alone — is the acting and the characters. Falco’s Jackie demands your love and your hate, Anna Deavere Smith’s administrator is harder and funnier but still clueless, Merritt Weaver’s Zoey is slightly more wiley, but still a puppy in awe of Jackie and blind to her and Eve Best’s Dr. O’Hara hovers between her own pain and narcissism and her genuine concern for Jackie.

United States of Tara also has many ribbons streaming from the centre of the story — Tara’s handful of alters/personalities, who appearance and destructiveness dominates the family’s life. But the control is much tighter. The daughter’s new job, the son’s claiming of his gayness flow out from the centre. But you can feel other developments wrapping around Tara and her three-month  alter-free status: a neighbourhood death, a neighbourhood dinner, a neighbourhood bar and a new engagement. The humming suspense is dotted but not dissipated with moments of humour that bubble up nicely, and the introduction of neighbours and a new artist character (Viola Davis). Your eye and your mind will never be far from Tara, played and underplayed so well by Toni Collette, whose Season 1 portrayal won her the Emmy last fall.

You have a watch and then let’s talk. Nurse Jackie airs Monday night at 10 p.m. ET on The Movie Network and United States of Tara airs at 10:30 p.m. ET on same.

— Denise Duguay

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