From the heart of the mob to the ER

'Nurse Jackie' is the best of the new hospital drama imports from America, thanks to a blistering, blackly comic turn from 'Sopranos' star Edie Falco

In the post-ER world of American medical dramas, doctors are making way for nurses – and the two most hotly anticipated new US shows of last year featured very different breeds of nurses as their chief protagonist.

Christina Hawthorne, the eponymous heroine of Hawthorne, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith (Mrs Will Smith), is a paragon of a head nurse: a beautiful widow who sticks up for her patients and staff, even championing the janitor when he complains the hospital bean-counters have made him switch to a cheaper brand of disinfectant.

Jackie Peyton, on the other hand, a New York City emergency room nurse at the centre of the dark new comedy drama Nurse Jackie, couldn't be less saintly. Addicted to painkillers ("What do you call a nurse with a bad back?", she asks at the beginning of the first episode. "Unemployed... boom, boom."), Jackie isn't above having functional sex with the hospital pharmacist in return for her regular fix of pills. Oh, and she quotes TS Eliot. She's complex and flawed, and no prizes for guessing which nurse critics and viewers have taken to their hearts.

Nurse Jackie is up for a Golden Globe later this month – or, to be precise, its star, Edie Falco, has been nominated as Best Actress. Not that the 46-year-old, Brooklyn-born Falco is any stranger to Golden Globes. Over the course of the Noughties she picked up two of them, as well as three Emmys and five Screen Actors Guild Awards (the first actress ever to pick up that particular triumvirate) for the role that plucked her from obscurity – Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, in HBO's The Sopranos.

Falco's portrayal of the First Lady of the New Jersey mob was so beautifully nuanced and ambiguous, that a character that might easily have been despicable for her crass materialism and her willingness to turn a blind eye to murder and infidelity in order to enjoy the fruits of her husband's labour, became instead deeply sympathetic. For Falco the role changed everything. She went from being an actress in her thirties, with plenty of bitter waitressing experience ("I was a monster; I was rude."), to being feted internationally.

"Thank God I was in my mid-thirties when this all started to happen," Falco told New York Magazine in 2007. "Had this happened to me 15 years ago, that would not be good. Bad, ugly things! Luckily, nobody cared. Nobody was taking pictures." She is referring to her drinking – her years of "hanging out with very scary and dangerous people and behaving in ways that I was horrified by" – until after one particular night of debauchery, she woke up and realised "Ok, I'm done".

She's been dry for 17 years now, which made hanging out with The Sopranos cast – notorious party animals, by all accounts – more of a chore than a blast. "I'm always invited, and I'm always there for two minutes and I leave, because I can't live in that world anymore. It's too dangerous", she said at the time. Her experiences have left their mark, however, and her face is a compelling mixture of lived-in, slightly damaged street savvy and a sensitive, sharply intelligent beauty. She looks more like her Swedish-American mother than her Italian-American father.

Nurse Jackie provides another plum role in a show that looks like it might run and run – a second series was commissioned just two days after the first episode aired in the States and in the UK, the first five episodes will be shown over five consecutive nights on BBC2. The other post-Carmela parts Falco was being offered weren't worthy – she didn't have high hopes when her friend uttered a phrase she had come to dread. "Those scary words: 'My friend has a script he wants you to read.'" However she saw something in Evan Dunsky's darkly surreal narrative, which was then handed over to television comedy veteran Linda Wallem (Cybill; That '70s Show) and her writing partner, Liz Brixius, for a rewrite. Brixius and Wallem were then able to put their own life experiences to use. Wallem had been to the Betty Ford Center when she was 31, and Brixius spent her 21st birthday in rehab – her third spell. "We have no interest in someone who's getting sober," Wallem told the Chicago Tribune. "I said to Lizzie, 'She can't be sober for at least five seasons.'"

Nurse Jackie's adultery and pill habit didn't please nursing bodies and conservative groups however, much to Falco's anger. "This is the story of a woman. It's not about nurses – she happens to be a nurse. If she was a plumber, she'd still be a drug addict. She'd be sniffing Drano or something."

However, the goodwill built up over six seasons of playing Carmela Soprano gave the character considerable leeway. Jackie has her own family to deal with (including an over-anxious daughter) – even if it is only mildly dysfunctional compared to the Sopranos. Falco herself has two adopted children, four-year-old Anderson (named after her mother, actress Judith M Anderson), and a baby daughter, Macy.

Nurse Jackie's substance abuse is not the only semi-autobiographical element in the show – for Falco has also been one half of an adulterous relationship, when an affair with Stanley Tucci, her co-star in a 2003 Broadway production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, caused a temporary rift in Tucci's marriage. Tucci, an old friend of Falco's from acting school, returned to his wife, Kate, a year later.

"We were together and then we broke up," was Falco's terse comment on the matter. "He's a lovely man, and he's back with his wife and kids, and I'm thrilled."

Tragically, Kate Tucci died of breast cancer last year. Falco was herself diagnosed with the disease in 2003, but seems to have made a full recovery. Naturally shy (like many a hard drinker, or ex-hard drinker) and private, she is one of those actresses who let their performances speak for themselves. "Don't pin it down. Leave questions. Treat the audience like they're smart," she has said of her creative philosophy.

"Having Edie – it's like watching Tiger Woods play golf. It's more exciting if he has a really hard course," says Wallem. "Nine times out of 10, [Falco's feedback is] 'This is a little too much. Can I say less?'" says Brixius. "How anti-actress is that?"

'Nurse Jackie' starts on BBC2 on Monday at 10pm

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