Pity the comedic actresses on network TV, or at least the ones hoping to get award recognition. Showtime just keeps stacking the deck.
At the Golden Globes in January, Toni Collette won the Lead Actress, Comedy trophy for Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” beating a field that also included Edie Falco from Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” Because of the Globes’ quirky love for star power, Courteney Cox snagged a nomination, presumably knocking out Mary Louise-Parker of Showtime’s “Weeds,” a former winner and four-time nominee. Folks like Cox and Tina Fey and Lea Michelle had best scoop up their nominations quickly, because Showtime has already set an August premiere for “The Big C,” a cancer comedy featuring Laura Linney, who holds a perfect 3-for-3 record at the Emmys.
It almost seems unfair.
So if you like top-notch, female-driven comedies (and don’t much care if said comedies are actually laugh-out-loud funny), Showtime’s new Monday will be like a Valhalla of sorts. “United States of Tara” and “Nurse Jackie” are joining forces in the most logical pairing since bacon first met chocolate. [Perhaps you have to be me for that last sentence to make sense.]
I’ve seen six episodes of “United States of Tara” and eight episodes of “Nurse Jackie,” enough episodes for me to assure you that both shows are off to solid starts. But it’s also enough for me to be a tiny bit concerned that both shows, shows which I felt had the potential for greatness when they launched last year, have settled into a rut of “pretty goodness” instead. I’ve already reached the point with both shows where I’m watching only for the lead performances and several supporting turns, rather than any stories being told.
Brief reviews of both shows, only minor spoilers, after the break…
In its first season, “Nurse Jackie” got a lot of mileage out of two focal points of tension: Would Jackie’s addiction to various pain medications be uncovered? And would her carefully maintained actual marriage and work “marriage” be uncovered and unravel? By the first season finale, it appeared that we’d reached a breaking point on each front. Eddie (Paul Schulze) had learned about Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), while Jackie appeared to be on her way to a major overdose.
And as the second season begins? It’s almost as if somebody hit the restart button. Jackie’s still popping pills and snorting pills and doing whatever’s necessary to ease her pain. Meanwhile, Schultze and Fumusa remain regular cast members and tensions exist.
Some things have changed. Haaz Sleiman’s Mo-Mo is gone, explained away with a single line of dialogue. Mo-Mo looked like he was important at the start of the first season, but he rapidly became an afterthought to Jackie’s relationship with Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best) and the show really loses nothing in his absence. Instead, Stephen Wallem’s Thor has been elevated from background comic relief to an actual character. Best has been given more time as well, while Anna Deavere Smith’s Akalitus has been woven into the narrative a bit better so that she doesn’t feel like she’s wandering in from a different show for 30 seconds per episode. Plus, Ruby Jerins, as as Jackie’s dark-minded daughter Grace, has proven to be that rarest of TV commodities, a sitcom (sortta) kid who gets more screentime because she’s an actual actress, rather than merely being moppet-cute.
While Falco is as strong and commanding as ever, she may need the writers to push Jackie to that next extreme, just to keep her engaged. She continues to be hamstrung by an utter lack of chemistry with the ever-forgettable Fumusa, compared to her appealing and expected chemistry with Schultze. It’s no longer a case of viewers getting a kick out of the idea of Father Phil and Carmella getting it on. Schultze and Falco are just good together, even if Eddie’s got issues.
But Falco aside, I may really be tuning in to “Nurse Jackie” for Merritt Wever and Peter Facinelli at this point. They’re often the only way of remembering that “Nurse Jackie” is ghettoized as a comedy, but neither of them is mugging for laughs. Wever is thriving as Zoey gets a bit of a personal life and even grows a spine, while Facinelli’s Coop discovers Twitter and learns the dark side of being viewed merely as a pretty face. The writers haven’t tried to give Wever and Facinelli arcs together, but that’s something I’d watch. [On a side note, the writers have backslid a little after recognizing how well Best and Wever worked together toward the end of last season. I understand that I’m suggesting a lot of things I’d like to see added, but I bet there’d be a lot of new wiggle room if we basically never saw Jackie’s husband ever again.]
I’m rarely a person who yearns for *more* religion on TV, but the chapel at All Saints hospital is undergoing renovations in Season Two of “Nurse Jackie” and, after the first couple episodes, the show’s spiritual core wanes a little as well. That was one of the things that I was most intrigued by last season and I’d welcome more of that.
“United States of Tara”
People are changing in the second season of “United States of Tara.” Or, more importantly, people are trying to see if they’re capable of change.
Unlike “Nurse Jackie,” where I could give you plotpoints from episode eight and I probably wouldn’t spoil anything, “United States of Tara” is pushing forward with some new things in its second season. Thus, I don’t want to spoil too much.
What can I say that’s not too spoilerish?
Well, Tara start the season clean and alter-free, but if “United States of Tara” ceased to be about a woman with DID, I’m not sure what the point would be. So I’ll tell y’all that a new alter emerges, an old alter begins to cause trouble for Tara and “co-consciousness” becomes the season’s buzzword. Also Collette continues to be terrific in a performance that consistently manages to avoid getting bogged down in gimmickry.
Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) is changing. He’s initially more comfortable in his sexuality until he begins fooling around with a very different kind of potential partner. Gilchrist brings a ton of nuance to the role and he’s created one of television’s most unique teens.
Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) is changing. She’s in a stable relationship and she thinks it’s time to settle down. DeWitt is one of my favorite parts of “Tara,” especially when she gets to share the screen with Patton Oswalt, who I’d call underused except that he’s probably just too busy to give any one show too much of his time.
Kate (Brie Larson) is changing. She’s found a new job as a debt collector, which brings her into contact with a bohemian artist played by Viola Davis. Larson remains an enigma because she can be mighty funny when asked to be, but the writers rarely ask. And unless you’re Meryl Streep, acting opposite Davis can be a struggle because once the Oscar nominee is introduced into the mix, you suddenly want the show to be more and more about her and less and less about anybody else.
There are other new faces in addition to Davis, though David may be the only one I want to see more of, which is not to impugn Joey Lauren Adams or the increasingly ubiquitous Michael Hitchcock.
While “United States of Tara” continues to have creator Diablo Cody’s fingerprints all over it, there’s less of a gap this season between the episodes that are More Cody and the episodes that are Less Cody. There are still pop culture references aplenty, new words and catchphrases floated and at least one odd sexual practice introduced into my vernacular.
As with “Nurse Jackie,” though, I guess I’m missing an urgency this season. Too much of the plot driving “Tara” is based on uncharacteristic secret-keeping that then leads to uncharacteristic drama.
Reservations aside, “Nurse Jackie” and “United States of Tara” still deliver plenty in the writing and acting departments and you won’t see much better acting than what Falco and Collette are going to display in the 10 p.m. hour for the next few months.
“Nurse Jackie” and “The United States of Tara” return to Showtime at 10 p.m. on Monday (March 22) night.