Boardwalk Empire: What Might Have Been

 

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It has to end with Repeal.

“Boardwalk Empire” is now in its fifth and final season. The mood is elegiac—the time is 1931, we’re deep in the Depression, and Nucky Thompson, political as always, seeks to co-opt a malleable U.S. Senator to push for the end of Prohibition (Fashion note: Steve Buscemi looks great in his sharply tailored, early 30’s suits). Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky are in open warfare with Doctor Narcisse, who refuses to pay them protection. Margaret, having siphoned money from Aaron Redstone’s Arnold Rothstein’s stock account since his demise, has been handed an ultimatum from the Widow Rothstein re: the missing funds. Gillian is in the booby hatch, Chalky White is on the run, and Joseph P. Kennedy doesn’t drink.

Is this where we wanted to be?

Although I’ve enjoyed “Boardwalk Empire” for what it’s been, I have a strong sense of missed opportunity. I would love to know what the show runners originally had in mind after that first intriguing season. In addition to Prohibition, they started us off with a fair sampling of what made the nascent 1920’s tick—the winning of votes for women, Margaret Sanger, Eddie Cantor and an endless supply of great music. But their having to deal with two reportedly obstreperous/difficult/whatever actors who were dropped/fired/left of their own accord, depending upon your source of information, forced some changes. The subtraction of one, Paz de la Huerta (Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s discarded mistress and Van Alden’s baby mama), caused only a minor ripple. However, the loss of the other, namely Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, has been felt ever since his character’s murder at the end of Season Two. That father/surrogate son dynamic he had with Nucky was the heartbeat of the show. Its replacement, an ever-diffuse gangster epic, has not proven to be as intriguing as the show runners had hoped. We’ve seen it before and quite honestly, it’s been done better.

The Real Atlantic City, 1920's

The Real Atlantic City, 1920’s

As a native New Jerseyan, I would have liked more of Atlantic City in the show. Historically it was one of the premiere resorts of the East Coast during the era in which “Boardwalk Empire” is set, yet we’ve really had little of this since Season One. We’ve rarely seen the fabled hotels, the ballroom on Steel Pier, a salt water taffy machine, the Diving Horse, or had a real grasp of the extent of the tourist trade. After all, Atlantic City was known as “the lungs of Philadelphia,” and was a regular stop on the try-out circuit for shows headed to Broadway. We’ve been “Boardwalk-less Empire” for quite some time, what with Atlantic City having to take a back seat to goings-on in Chicago, New York, Florida and now Cuba.

Another problem has been the depressing disposability of the female characters of this show. Given the fate of these ladies, I had the clear impression, week after week, that the show runners were charter members of the Old Boys Club. Daughter Maitland, Maybelle White, Billie Kent, Lucy Danziger, Babette and of course, Angela Darmody, met untimely ends, disappeared or otherwise suffered. Angela’s murder, in itself one of the more horrible acts on “Boardwalk Empire,” also deprived us of a potential window to the Greenwhich Village scene, something which was foreshadowed in Season One. Considering the explosion of the arts in America in the 1920’s, not following through with this storyline was a considerable loss—it would have been an intriguing counterpoint to the world of bloodshed and booze.

Nevertheless, there’s always been something to relish in “Boardwalk Empire.” Various characters stay with you: Michael Stulhbarg’s Arnold Rothstein (the one reason why I wish they hadn’t hopscotched to 1931, past his final days). Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White. Eddie Cantor (Stephen DeRosa), Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicolson). Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks)—and his giggle. Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), truly this season’s Odd Couple. But Valentin Narcisse, played by the elegant Jeffrey Wright, is a special delight. He’s a master of the quiet bon mot. Witness his recent sit-down with Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Narcisse politely inquires how they wish to be addressed. “Charlie” “My ma called me pitseleh” (Yiddish for “little one”). Narcisse’s response? A small smile. “What friendly little names.” And the other two actors are blown right off the screen.

I’m particularly intrigued by how Margaret intends to play Nucky in order to set herself right with the Widow Rothstein and the feds, though I’m sure Eli’s kid is about to help. And the flashbacks to Nucky’s boyhood are a treat—I’m enjoying how they play at a slower tempo, befitting simpler times. And whoever cast John Ellison Conlee as the young Commodore deserves a special Emmy. Vocally he’s a perfect match for Dabney Coleman and while he’s heftier than the older version of the character, his facial expressions more than suggest the man we first met several years ago.

There are only five episodes remaining in this final season. Despite its flaws, I’ll be sad to see it go.

 

 

 

 

 

Layers

"Masters of Sex": Prelude

“Masters of Sex”: Prelude

We seem to be in a golden age of drama, whether cable or streamed. There may be more water cooler shows than water coolers these days, as “Breaking Bad,” “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards” and a number of others can easily attest. What marks each, regardless of subject, is the complexity of the writing and the astonishing ability of the actors to play the intricate levels of emotion demanded by their roles. It’s a welcome feast.

Case in point: A scene in an early episode of the recently concluded season of “Last Tango in Halifax.” You’ll recall that Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Kate (Nina Sosanya) have finally, sort of, gotten together, though they’re not out at work (Caroline is the headmistress of the rather tony school at which Kate teaches). On this occasion, as they walk to school assembly, Caroline flapping in her academic robe, they discuss Caroline’s suggestion that Kate sell her house, move in with her and help finance Caroline’s buy-out of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s interest. Kate’s not sure Caroline is making this offer for the right reasons until Caroline blurts out “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

"Last Tango in Halifax": Negotiations Await

“Last Tango in Halifax”: Negotiations Await

Talk about a game changer. From that point on, as the characters discuss property appraisals, they wear the dippiest smiles—both realize Caroline has in essence proposed. But then Kate, pressured by that chapel of students waiting on the headmistress, as well as a desire to put her own cards on the table, comes out with “I want to have a baby.” In the stress of the moment Caroline bursts out laughing—at the incongruous setting of the discussion, at her own audacity in moving things along with Kate, at Kate’s desire to have a first child at the age of 42. Fortunately Sarah Lancashire has the talent to make us see all of this in an instant, which is why this scene is one of my “Tango” favorites.

The second season of “Masters of Sex,” though at the darker end of the spectrum, plays at the same level. It began with a bang (no pun intended), when Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was forced to fend off a series of passes from the leering doctors who thought hers was the orgasmic body in William Masters’ lecture film. While there have been other fireworks along the way, the best scenes this season have been those exploring the relationship between her and Bill (Michael Sheen). In Season 1 we saw them become subjects in their own study, as they practically swore an oath they were only doing it for the good of science. But despite their best efforts, things became complicated.

Their scenes together are a fascinating study of emotional layers, both as they accrete and as they’re peeled away. We see their hotel room trysts and watch as they fantasize for each other, revealing more about their lives than they’re otherwise capable of doing. A romantic relationship it’s not–at one point Ginny prevents Bill from kissing her, reminding him “That’s not what we do”—but they’re certainly obsessed with each other, both sexually and in terms of who has the power in their relationship. Bill is a physician, so his credentials outshine Ginny’s, the college dropout. Ah, but she’s divorced and free to embark on any relationship she wants, despite his protests, while he’s in a marriage that clearly isn’t fulfilling for him. At this point his need is greater, and she’s not as available as he would want.

All of this is beautifully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The nuances they bring to their roles are astonishing—I especially enjoy her self-conscious “educated” accent. In a recent episode they repaired to their usual hotel suite and the methods of their sexuality study easily morphed into foreplay (She ordered him to strip and, stopwatch in hand, monitored his physical responses as he masturbated). Every moment was charged with about six different emotions, and these actors made it feel as if we were eavesdropping, as well we were.

Michael Sheen is a fascinating Bill Masters—I still can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for an Emmy. Masters’ confrontation with the black newspaper editor who intends to publish a profile detailing his troubled employment history is a showcase of great acting. To stop publication, Masters threatens to reveal that his study can confirm every conceivable stereotype of African-American sexuality (false). He blusters, he pounds the table, yet Sheen simultaneously makes us sense his uneasiness and self-disgust. He has the talent to distinguish this scene from the one we saw last season when Masters blackmailed Provost Barton in order to have his study reinstated at the hospital. During that conversation Sheen made us see Masters’ confidence, since Barton had something to hide; in contrast, despite the noise he makes to the newspaper editor, Masters is mentally cowering. It’s quite a performance.

We’ve seen the same level of complexity in other relationships on the show, especially Ginny’s friendship with Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), her one-time boss who’s now dying of ovarian cancer. Lillian is fighting the good fight, undergoing debilitating radiation treatments to combat the metastases in her brain, but she’s reached a point where she just wants some peace. Yet Ginny refuses to conceive of someone’s wanting to stop; giving up is not in her lexicon. In the “Blackbird” episode, Lillian finally had her own way and in doing so, taught Ginny how to let go. On a different note, Betty, a former prostitute and early subject of Masters’ study, sees her marriage end when her lesbian relationship comes to light. But she’s a survivor, above all, and goes on to become a real estate broker, a CPA and evidently the manager of Bill Masters’ practice. The fact that he’s now taking orders from her is a delightful twist.

If you’re not watching “Masters of Sex,” you should. It’s some of the best TV around.

Robin Williams

 

"Clash!"

“Clash!”

What a loss.

Yes, he was T.S. (“Terribly Sexy”) Garp, Adrian Cronauer, Armand Goldman and a host of other men—and occasionally women—but most of all he was the fastest brain (and mouth) around.

To listen to him improvise was astonishing. I remember the Sunday afternoon he and Billy Crystal invaded the Mets broadcasting booth at Shea Stadium to promote the first Comic Relief. This was definitely foreign territory for Billy, a diehard Yankees fan. But Robin Williams, who professed to never having attended a baseball game before, was nevertheless right at home. Taking on the persona of a fey fashion designer, he proceeded to give new meaning to the term “color commentary” with his nonstop views on the players’ uniforms (“Can’t they be more stylish?”), batting helmets and everything else in view. Tim McCarver, the Mets’ play-by-play man, was laughing so hard he was beside himself. And I had fallen off the sofa the instant Robin opened his mouth.

Garp and Jenny Fields (Glenn Close)

Garp and Jenny Fields (Glenn Close)

Fortunately he left behind the many characters he brought to life on film. To this day, nothing brings me out of a funk faster that Adrian Cronauer’s first broadcast in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Unless, of course, it’s Robin’s whirlwind make-up tests in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” aided and abetted by Harvey Fierstein. But my all-time favorite is the bit he improvised for “The Birdcage,” when he provides motivation for Nathan Lane’s hunky yet exceedingly clueless dance partner. His lightning quick demonstration of about six different choreographic styles sent me into hysterics as soon as he pulled his shirt over his head at “Martha Graham, Martha Graham.” And when he galloped around at “Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd,” I totally lost it. Pure genius.

Perhaps my favorite among Robin Williams’ “serious” roles is Garp. The mania is tamed, but the vibrancy remains. Needless to say, the cast is amazing: Glenn Close as his mother, Mary Beth Hurt as his wife, John Lithgow as the inimitable Roberta Muldoon and Swoosie Kurtz as a prostitute-turned-women’s rights supporter. He takes us through Garp’s triumphs, only to trip and fall and then succeed again. There are times you just want to smack him one, but Robin Williams is so likeable in the role you just root for the character no matter what.

He will indeed be missed.

A Team at Last

The New Face of the Franchise?

Jacob deGrom: The New Face of the Franchise?

The Mets are back.

The pitching’s been there all season, but it hit a new high with the recent emergence of Jacob deGrom, an unheralded righty with pinpoint control. For months other young Mets pitchers like Zach Wheeler and prospect Noah Syndergaard grabbed the lion’s share of attention (not to mention Matt Harvey’s Tommy John surgery). I had never even heard of deGrom until he was brought up to start in place of the injured Dillon Gee. What a lovely surprise.

After an inconsistent beginning, deGrom is now locked in. He and Giants starter Jake Peavy treated the CitiField crowd to the unheard-of experience of a double perfect game through six innings this past Saturday night, causing the TV announcers to scramble for their record books. Although deGrom yielded the first hit, the Mets made the roof cave in for Peavy in the bottom of the 7th, eventually winning the game 4-2. Even though they got their clock cleaned the next day 9-0, courtesy of Madison Bumgarner, they’re now a team to savor.

The pieces are coming together: Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Juan Lagares (what a centerfielder!), Wilmer Flores and amazingly Travis d’Arnaud, who came back from his demotion to the minors a decent hitter with pop, plus the veterans David Wright and Curtis Granderson. This on top of what should be a great pitching staff next year when Matt Harvey returns. Yes, they still need a Big Bopper in the outfield, but that will happen.

It’s fun to be a Mets fan again!

Smile

"Tell us about that, dear...in your own words"

“Tell us about that, dear…in your own words”

Somewhere during the last three or four decades American film lost its talent to produce good-natured satire. Now everything is played for keeps, mirroring the scorched earth politics that have been the norm in recent memory. Just as an example, I doubt a movie like “His Girl Friday,” released in 1940, could be made today. The left would picket over the gender, ethnic and racial jokes, though the film is most definitely an equal opportunity offender (and funny as hell); the right would complain that the anarchist Earl Williams should have been hanged, and that the poor sheriff was done dirt by the lefty newspaper reporters (that era’s version of the “lamestream media”).

1975’s “Smile,” directed by Michael Ritchie, is the type of gentle satire that’s somehow lost its place in today’s humor. Despite its potshots at those eternal targets, beauty pageants and small town life, there’s a sweetness here. Ritchie leaves you with more winners than losers. He deliberately refrains from inviting the audience to feel superior to the characters; instead, he brings you into their world. Christopher Guest is the only filmmaker working today whose tone approaches that of “Smile,” though he’s definitely more pointed at times.

“Smile” covers the week in which small town Santa Rosa hosts the California state finals for the teen-age Young American Miss pageant. As expected, the event sponsor is the local Chamber of Commerce, among whose leading lights is Big Bob Friedlander (Bruce Dern), car dealer extraordinaire and the pageant’s Chief Judge. Relentlessly optimistic, he’s congenitally unable to open his mouth without a cliché, a catchphrase or a meme tumbling out. As can be imagined, Big Bob’s Number 1 pet peeve is anyone who “wallows in self-pity.” Nevertheless, there’s not one mean bone in his body, so it’s quite painful when events force him to question his values.

His polar opposite is Tommy French (Michael Kidd), a somewhat down on his luck director-choreographer, who’s been reduced to staging local beauty pageants. Despite all this he remains a total pro, and his frequent clashes with the squarely upright Jaycee in charge, Wilson Shears (Geoffrey Lewis), usually find him on the winning side, even if victory comes at a cost. Above all, though, Tommy’s a realist. When a stagehand congratulates him on the fine job he’s done, French wryly replies: “Yeah. I took a nice bunch of high school kids and turned them into Vegas showgirls.”

Watching the newly-minted "Vegas showgirls"

Watching the newly-minted “Vegas showgirls”

Ritchie has a keen eye and a good sense of balance. While he does go after some obvious targets like the smarmy pageant emcee, the above-mentioned Wilson Shears and Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), former Young American Miss and now professional martyr married to Andy, the town drunk (Nicholas Pryor), he shows us a fond yet rueful view of small town life. There’s the Elks Bears breakfast honoring the pageant contestants, presided over by the local funeral director (Paul Benedict, who should have been used more), and the Jaycees blowing off steam at their Exhausted Rooster Ceremony (though their rooster garb uneasily resembles the KKK’s white sheets). Yet Ritchie also shows us that Santa Rosa is like every other small town that people need to leave in order to grow up. Not because it’s a bad place—only a stifling one. When Big Bob urges Andy to stay in Santa Rosa to solve his problems, the latter, with a defiant gleam in his eye, replies “Who wants to?”

Ritchie takes a sympathetic view of the pageant contestants. We’re spared the horror of stage mothers and professional coaches; Ritchie is too smart to waste our time with that. Instead, we experience the pageant through the eyes of a contestant, Robin (Joan Prather), a sweet, naive kid who to her surprise catches the fever to win. Then there’s her roommate, Doria (Annette O’Toole, giving the type of performance you remember for years), a pageant veteran who’s used to dealing with horny dermatologists and Vaseline on her teeth to help her maintain that smile, among other travails. Her talent spot in the pageant is perhaps the high point of “Smile”—a striptease scrubbed clean by an accompanying poetry recitation, capped off by an unforgetable ending. This bit alone is worth the cost of the DVD. Trust me.

As Tommy French says, the girls are basically your average high school kids. They’re not goody-goody, they’re certainly not Ginger Rogers—they’re simply playing the game, one whose values Robin questions. We catch her in the middle of a conversation with Doria, who points out: “Boys get paid for making touchdowns. Why shouldn’t a girl get paid for being pretty?” Robin’s reply always gladdens this former band nerd’s heart: “Well, maybe boys shouldn’t get paid for making touchdowns.”

Ultimately Ritchie’s view is somewhat ambivalent. While he shows us the silliness of the pageant and the clichés that prevail (not to mention the loot the winner collects), we also see the camaraderie of the contestants, their refreshing ability to see through a ton of adult b.s. and their resilience. A pity we lose this as we grow older.

“Smile”—a lovely reminder that once upon a time films were actually made for grown-ups.

Sci-Fi Summer

extant

This summer is pig heaven if you’re a science fiction fan. “Under the Dome” has returned for Round Two of life with Big Jim. “The Leftovers” is ensconced in HBO’s Sunday night lineup. But Wednesday night saw the premiere of a show that may turn out to be the best of the lot, CBS’ “Extant,” with Halle Berry as the “how can she be pregnant?” astronaut.

Watching the pilot episode reminded me of the best of classic sci-fi, the stuff I gobbled up in seventh grade when I first started reading Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Kate Wilhelm and a host of other authors. Despite the futuristic production design (I loved the presentation to the Yasumoto board), the show hit every classic note on the genre scale. You’ve got outer space, robots passing for human (thus the “humanics” designation), possible alien life forms and suspended animation, spiced up with nefarious corporations, conspiracy and just plain old paranoia.

How can you go wrong?

I loved Goran Visnjic (hello Dr. Kovac!) as Halle’s robotics maven husband who pooh-poohs the possibility of any form of robot uprising. That’s one big fat Acme anvil right there. I suspect it won’t be long before he’s disabused of that notion if only by his “son,” the humanic Ethan who, to put it mildly, has something of an aggression problem. The creep factor is enormous: Goran’s workshop with spare humanic parts, Ethan’s abrupt switch from the dead bird to complimenting his mother’s hairstyle, only to be topped by the sudden appearance of a stranger on the space station, tracing “Help Me” on a foggy window. Shudder.

The show runners certainly packed a great deal into one hour, leaving us with a laundry list of questions:

Why was Halle alone on a space station the size of a small city? And for 13 months?

Honey, if your dead first husband shows up and the only words out of his mouth are a monotone repeat of yours, you didn’t get that maybe there’s a problem here?

Why did she erase the tape? Out of fear of a bad performance review? Because good astronauts can’t be caught hallucinating?

I can’t wait until the next episode.

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The Guilty Remnant's Words to Live By

The Guilty Remnant’s Words to Live By

I read Tom Perrotta’s novel, “The Leftovers,” prior to the start of the HBO series, and now I almost wish I hadn’t. While it’s no surprise that the book and TV series are very different in tone, what’s bothersome is that the show suffers for it.

The novel, published in 2011, defies categorization. It’s a stark examination of people coping with unexpected, catastrophic loss (In positing the inexplicable disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, Perrotta obviously drew on 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami). The author provides no explanation for this, though many characters think it’s the Rapture. But contrary to initial expectations, Perrotta’s people for the most part respond in understandable if not always reasonable ways. The novel’s universe doesn’t feel upended. True, there’s a cult-like movement called the Guilty Remnant (see above), which in its discipline bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, and various nuts come out of the woodwork, but life does go on.

However, HBO’s version, co-created by Tom Perrotta, is far darker and dystopian. In no particular order, I don’t remember anyone shooting dogs in the book, though it’s done here, the Kevin Garvey character isn’t the chief of police but the somewhat wealthy mayor of the town, and his son is no killer. For that matter, the Wayne Gilchrist character is a nondescript middle aged man; he and his followers more closely resemble Warren Jeffs and his faction than the crew manning the armed encampment you see in the show. Perhaps the TV version’s biggest failing is the casting of Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. He’s a fine actor to be sure, but he’s a walking nerve end, a far cry from the more even-tempered Kevin Garvey we meet on the page.

But dystopia sells, which no doubt is the reason why “The Leftovers” is no longer a meditation on dealing with loss but a sci-fi thriller. I don’t mean this pejoratively; I just think it would have been more interesting to retain the book’s slant for TV, though it would have been difficult to sustain for 13 episodes. But the show is doing an excellent job with the Guilty Remnant, and Jill Garvey’s struggles remain true to Perrotta’s original vision. I intend to keep watching.

Far more fun is the return of “Under the Dome,” as the residents of Chester’s Mill continue their puzzlement over the whys and wherefores. Yes, Junior in essence saved Barbie’s life, and that was indeed Stephen King himself in the diner, asking Angie for a coffee refill. Due to my commuting schedule I’m a week behind, so I can’t wait to see how the McAlisters, Norrie and Carolyn fare under Big Jim’s roof. Just one big happy family? I think not.

 

Champion Manipulators

One Toxic “Mother-Daughter” Combo

“Orange is the New Black” has come roaring back for its second season on Netflix. It’s always difficult for a smash hit series to maintain that level of excellence, but on balance I think this one has.

We’ve now gotten some pre-prison background on Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), Poussey, Black Cindy, Miss Rosa, Sister Jane and Morello, though we’re still in the dark as to why some of these inmates ended up in Litchfield. But Morello’s story remains a stand-out. We learn she conflated an entire romance with her “fiancé” out of one coffee date, during which he evidently spotted the crazy and dropped her. Whereupon she began to stalk him and his girlfriend, going so far to plant a bomb under the latter’s car. Inasmuch as the luckless object of Morello’s affection is a postal worker, she ended up in a federal pen, creepily smiling her way through her trial. And it even goes downhill from there.

But it’s through Taystee that we meet the sociopath who drives OITNB’s Season Two: Vee, a drug dealer, who ensnares children and teens mired in the foster system into her network of runners and street dealers. She offers them something they’ve never had before—attention, support and family life, of a sort (Dickens’ Fagin comes to mind). She makes it all seem real because she always has her eyes on the prize, as a true sociopath does. In Litchfield she continues to prey upon anyone whom she can use, most pathetically the needy Suzanne, whom she turns into a sadistic henchman always eager for Momma Vee’s love.

The ever-skeptical Red, who knew Vee well during the latter’s earlier period of incarceration, is instantly wary upon their initial encounter in Round Two.  Paybacks abound in terms of territory taken and who runs which racket, until Red, incensed that Vee is dealing drugs inside the prison, tries but fails to strangle her. Vee’s heartfelt call for a truce results in Red’s letting her guard down, to her extreme detriment. But the way the story ultimately plays out is satisfying indeed.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences better start inscribing that Emmy now, because it belongs to Lorraine Toussaint for her portrayal of Vee. Whether warm, shrewd or coldly manipulative, there’s not one wrong note in her performance. She strikes exactly the right pitch between realism and larger than life; when she’s on-screen you want even more Vee though you’re totally appalled at what she does. Until this point Lorraine Toussaint has been best known for her appearances on multiple TV shows, including her recurring role as a defense attorney on “Law & Order” and more recently as Sheri Saum’s mother on “The Fosters” (great “Fosters” tweet the other night about grandma being in the pen). But what a break-out role Vee is turning out to be.

There are other things to savor in OITNB: that weird friendship between Pennsatuckey and Healey; Sophia instructing the other inmates re: the design and function of their ladyparts; more Piper and Alex, past and present. But watching Nicky struggle with Vee’s bribe of drugs (was I the only one yelling “Don’t do it!” at the screen?), only to turn the stuff over to Red was perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the season. The funniest by far? Pornstache’s perp walk as he shouts pregnancy advice to Daya (“Don’t eat tuna fish!”). When I read that Mary Steenburgen would be playing his Mom next season, all I could think was “Pornstache has a mother?!?” Good times are definitely ahead.

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She’s Finally Got Your Number, Jackie

I’ve been a fan of “Nurse Jackie” since the beginning, and I’m amazed that after six seasons this show still has the ability to surprise, though not necessarily in a good way. Edie Falco continues to play that most anti- of anti-heroines who seems to sink lower with each episode. Yes, she’s a pill gobbling addict and the hallmark of addiction is that the junk comes before everything—husband/boyfriend, children, friends and conscience—but in the long run can this really be entertainment?

The end of last season saw Jackie relapse on the one-year anniversary of her sobriety, and this year she’s so overboard with the meds she’s managed to (a) steal a doctor’s DEA number to facilitate her trips to the pharmacy (b) entice a dying nun to take the rap for it (c) dump her terrific, supportive cop boyfriend at least twice in super-nasty fashion (d) lure her sponsor into relapse and then trick her into signing herself into rehab on the false promise that she (Jackie) would enter the program with her (e) destroy her rebuilt relationship with her ex-husband by bringing her dealer to the ex’s wedding, and worst of all (f) alienate her supervisor and co-workers by refusing to enter a diversionary program after nearly killing a patient while being high as a kite at work. There’s even more, and it’s all told in twelve increasingly depressing episodes.

It’s tough to watch. Jackie seemed to exhibit no remorse whatsoever, except in the last episode when it finally dawned on her that even her younger daughter has had enough. And yet she still has good old Eddie (Paul Schulze), her pharmacist sidekick, as her enabler. Now there’s a dysfunctional relationship for you—no matter how badly she behaves, she can always cast that line to reel him back in, and he seemingly has no other significant person in his life. At various points I thought he might be breaking away, first when he gave O’Hara a ride on his motorcycle (Eve Best, please come back!), and this season, when he hung out with Antoinette, Jackie’s sponsor (Julie White, who’s been a breath of fresh air). But once again he paved the way for Jackie’s escape from responsibility, soon thwarted by a car accident and her subsequent DUI arrest.

Despite my misgivings about the direction the show has taken, there’s some very fine acting on display here. In addition to Ms. Falco, Anna Deavere Smith is tremendous as Gloria Akalitus, Jackie’s supervisor, and Merritt Wever rightly deserved that Emmy she won as Zoe Barkow, no longer Jackie’s protegé but a true peer who finally sees through all her lies. Dr. Fitch Cooper has even become fun to watch, thanks to Peter Facinelli’s charm; I only wish the show runners had brought back his two moms, but I suppose Blythe Danner/Judith Light and/or Swoosie Kurtz was/were unavailable.

“Nurse Jackie” will be back for a seventh season, and at this point it’s hard to see how she’ll be able to put her life back together. It will literally be kill or cure time.