"It's more fun to write and shoot than it is to watch," said Liz Brixius during a recent phone conversation with our Jim Halterman about the just-launched second season of Showtime's hit series "Nurse Jackie." Starring Emmy-winner Edie Falco, Jackie is a hard-working nurse in a New York City hospital but while one minute she's coming to the aid of a beaten-up prostitute or a homeless pregnant woman she's also battling demons in herself that manifest through drug addiction, a marriage and family she likes to keep private and an affair with a former co-worker. Brixius, who helped create the series with Linda Wallem from a script by Evan Dunsky, talked about how the project was an easy sell, keeping Jackie likable enough despite her missteps and the choice to give Jackie's children deep and dark problems.
Jim Halterman: Does shooting in New York make a difference in the show as opposed to shooting in Los Angeles or anywhere else?
Liz Brixius: Absolutely. We do a lot of exteriors and New York is a pretty cinematic place with the sky and the seasons. Things can look foreboding when you want to go for it. In LA, I find that the crews are pretty aspirational. They are always like, 'I have a screenplay. Can you read it? I want to get on that Ben Affleck movie.' That's not how it is in New York where it's mostly lifers. The grip is the grip and that's what he wants to be so it's more grounded in a way and I think Edie is very grounded. Linda and I are pretty grounded. We don't go for bright and shiny and I think LA is bright and shiny. I don't think there's anything wrong with it but it's why 'Grey's Anatomy' looks like 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Nurse Jackie' looks like 'Nurse Jackie.'
JH: Moral ambiguity seems to rule over at Showtime if you look over their programming. Did that initially help make the project an easy sell?
LB: People say 'Nurse Jackie' is just 'House' with a nurse but it's really not. We hadn't watched 'House.' I think it just goes to being a little bit in the zeitgeist. Linda and I and Edie have all been sober for many, many years so we like the idea of telling stories about addiction because we all completely understand what it's like to be on the surface going one way but then having an undertow pull you another way. It's fun to play if you're an actor because it's not so much subtext but you have two things pulling you at the same time and that's fun to watch and it's fun to dream up those stories and it's fun to put your characters through those paces and have actors who can really pull it off. That's really fun. Was it a hard sell? No, not at all. The reality is that Edie had come off 'The Sopranos' and Linda and I were big fans of Edie's work on 'The Sopranos.' There might be 60 minutes of show time, Edie or Carmella might only have 4 minutes of screen time but she always left such an indelible mark. She was just such a powerful actress. Conceptually it would be easy to see what if Edie Falco was the center of the universe and not Tony Soprano?
JH: When you were jumping into creating the show, were you worried about her being too unlikable?
LB: Yes and no. I think it goes back to the specific actors that we have. I think she has generated so much good will that people trust Edie. If she's in it, they think it's probably pretty good and there's probably something to it. We also knew that we were telling the truth, whether nurses will admit that or not. 95% of them say 'yeah, that's kind of what it's like' and 'yeah, we know nurses like that.' We knew that we were trying to show that emergency rooms are sad, dark places, people are tired, people are also completely absurd and people come in and it's life or death and the stakes are high and people do drastic things. We do know that some viewers will say 'Jackie is despicable' but we'll say 'We know that. It's fine. We like her.' I'd have Jackie as my friend in a heartbeat. She's a vigilante.
JH: So how did you approach Season 2 and the stories you wanted to tell?
LB: We approached season 2 knowing that she can't be in a holding pattern. She's not in a holding pattern with her addiction. The consequences of season one have to start bubbling up and most of it involves Eddie (Paul Schulze) and it involves having to find other ways to get drugs now that the Pixus (a computer run drug-dispensing machine) is there. She has different obstacles. Season one for Jackie was about keeping home and hospital separate and they're not separate anymore after Eddie shows up at the hospital and says he's been to the bar, he's talked to Kevin (Dominic Fumusa). That wall has been breached. What we didn't want to do is leave [the first season] with her on the floor and come back with her on the floor. We wanted to jump time. We don't tell you exactly how she got off the floor but it doesn't really matter. If you know anything about Jackie it's that she's going to pick herself back up. I think a lot of other shows would have addressed the cliffhanger head on and we didn't want to do it. We wanted to jump ahead and pick up six weeks or so later and she's just going about her business and these consequences are in taking risks.
JH: Can you talk about giving the kids - especially Jackie's daughter Grace - a lot of depth and real problems that aren't wrapped up in one episode.
LB: I think that we really wanted when we gave Jackie kids is we did not want to have your typical TV kids or the sort of wisecracking funny kid. We wanted to do something different and we wanted the kids to actually feel like kids that you know. If you have a mother who's a drug addict and she works a million night shifts, one of your kids is probably going to be predisposed to the same level of anxiety and addiction; that stuff is real. You can't have kids in a vacuum and expect them all to turn out unlike you in some way; they're going to be more like you than not. I love that Jackie has a daughter that worries and that worries her and you have to wonder 'Why is this kid so anxious?' Probably because of Jackie and that's another layer to Jackie's need to escape things. And we found out very early on that we had a spectacularly talented kid in Ruby Jerins who plays Grace and we realized we could give her the stuff and she'd be able to do it. That just made our imaginations run wild! It's okay. We can ask the kid to do hard stuff and she does.
JH: There are several gay characters on the show but they are not defined by their sexuality. How did you come to approach the show and issue in that manner?
LB: I think the days of very special episodes where someone is gay or we're a show about gay people... all those trails have been blazed for us. There's an episode later in the season where Harvey Fierstein is the guest star and his husband is dying and everyone is going up to him and saying 'I think it's very great that you're married to a guy" and he just looks at them and says 'I can just not be gay right now. Can I just be a guy whose spouse is dying? Can I have that?' That's where we are in society. That's where I am as a person. Can I just not be whatever you think I am. Can I just be who I am? Can I just be that? That's what the fight is ultimately about - for people to walk in the work place and love whoever they love and not have that be the defining thing.
"Nurse Jackie" airs every Monday at 10:00/9:00c on Showtime.