Written by Dylan Callaghan
The fact that Nurse Jackie, the critically-heralded Showtime half-hour dramedy starring the former Mrs. Tony Soprano, Edie Falco, feels singular and fresh, has a lot to do with TV first-timer Liz Brixius. Yes, she’s paired up with small screen veteran Linda Wallem (Cybill and That 70’s Show), and she’s co-created the show based on a concept originated by Evan Dunsky, but this Minnesota native brings the kind of smarts and intangibly potent personality that can only come from someone who’s lived a while in the real world far beyond the Hollywood bubble.
It comes from such things as a handful of trips to rehab in the Midwest for alcohol and drug addiction early in life. “I just enjoyed a good cocktail at a very young age,” she quips. Sobriety finally stuck in her 20s and she went to grad school to study poetry, which she then taught at the University of Massachusetts.
She knew she wanted to earn a living as a writer, but teaching poetry was far too expendable a vocation. Magazine writing in New York didn’t feel any more viable, so she decided to try her hand at daytime drama. Although she ditched most of her comp lit classes in college to go drinking, she explains, she also watched a lot of soaps during her nearly half dozen trips to houses of recovery.
If this sounds almost too honest and funny and unabashedly real, that’s because this is how the crisply articulate Brixius is. And this is exactly what she’s brought to Nurse Jackie. On the recommendation of TV producer Linda Gottlieb – whom she claims, “I stalked” – she eventually moved to L.A. and worked her way from a floater to the story department at William Morris, where a script she’d written called Sprinkler Queen got to Sandra Bullock, who had Warner Bros. buy it. When Showtime wanted to tweak Dunsky’s original Nurse Jackie, Brixius and Wallem were called in to reimagine it.
Brixius spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about her maiden TV venture, what she meant to do with the show, and what has surprised her about how it’s unfolded.
What for you is the defining hook of this show?
Photo: © 2009 Showtime
Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie.
I think that the most essential thing about this show is depicting the crumbling heath care [system] – which is really going on – not glamorizing a hospital, the way that almost every show has this gorgeous cast and these super smart doctors overcoming great obstacles and exotic diseases.
This is a very blue collar woman who is not in charge, but takes charge. She is very human and very relatable – she’s not full of hair and makeup, she’s not more wealthy or more educated or prettier than everyone around her.
How would you describe the personality of the show’s writing room?
Generous. Dark. Hilarious. Almost all are addicts of one kind or another, and they have diverse backgrounds.
Why do you think almost all of them are addicts? Do you think that’s inherent to the obsessive nature of a writer?
Yeah, I do. I think that with addiction comes obsession, and with obsession comes really penetrating focus. All the stories we do are pretty intimate. We don’t do, “Oh my God, the patient swallowed a bomb and it’s going to go off while we operate on him!” Our drama comes from these small, intense psychological places.
In what ways has the show and its stories surprised you or gone in directions that you didn’t expect?
Linda and I always thought that [Dr. Eleanor] O’Hara was going to be an icy blonde American clinician. Eve Best walked in the room wearing beat-up boots, practically had sticks in her hair. Because she was in The Homecoming on Broadway at the time, she was completely dressed down, unglamorous and British, and nailed it. Immediately the trajectory for O’Hara changed.
Linda and I saw Zoe Barkow as this maybe one- or two-note character but as we watched Merritt Wever, our actor, inhabit Zoe, we realized we had something so magical that we made a commitment to start writing for that.
Is it more gratifying for you as a writer to see exactly what you created on the page come to life or to see something you didn’t write spring with unexpected power from the situation you created?
The latter. I think seeing something exactly as you imagine it is a very finite feeling. It’s over. What Linda and I love is seeing something that we were very certain about when we wrote it given to an actor and director, [and watching] it go through two more translations. We never try to harness it back into what we imagined, unless we absolutely disagree with the translation, which so far hasn’t happened.
We’re honored when someone takes what we’ve done and does it as faithfully as they can, but part of them leaks into it…
That’s what you want.
That’s what we want because when that happens it becomes truer and more universal in that moment.
How conscious are you of redefining the depiction of women on TV and how much is just incidental in the course of telling the stories you want to tell?
It’s the byproduct of the telling the story we want to tell. Neither Linda nor I thought it was particularly noteworthy that Jackie was married and had a boyfriend at work because the history of television is littered with the affairs of married men at work… We were at TCA [Television Critics Association] and that was the first thing people brought up. We thought, “Wow, what a double-standard that intelligent, well-rounded viewers have.”
And they would say, “What are all the nurses going to think about being depicted as philanderers and drug addicts?” And we were like, “We’re not trying to depict all nurses. We’re trying to depict one woman.” It’s one woman’s story.
If you had to give me one golden lesson that you’ve learned so far as a writer-creator during this experience, what would it be?
That television is a hugely collaborative endeavor. If you’re interested in being singled out as an artist, write poems and submit them to The New Yorker… The writers break their backs trying to come up with stories and we, as a room, decide what stories fit where to mirror Jackie’s life in this episode. We table all of our outlines and all our scripts. It is a joint vision that produces a singular voice. Whoever gets their name on the script is a very lucky person because a lot of people gave the very best of themselves.