Last Night's Television - Dear Diary, BBC4; Nurse Jackie, BBC2

A real shot in the arm
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The Independent Culture

To say that Edie Falco was the best thing in The Sopranos is a bit, albeit only a bit, like saying that the liquorice-poached salmon is the best thing about the tasting menu at the Fat Duck: how can you pick out just one part of such a magnificent and multi-layered feast? Well, I can't comment on the Fat Duck's tasting menu – I'm still saving up – but I can at least offer a personal view that Falco's exquisitely subtle and nuanced portrayal of mobster's wife Carmela Soprano was indeed the best thing about The Sopranos, and she's back with subtlety and nuance aplenty playing the title role in Nurse Jackie, yet another US import to force us to re-examine the whiskery old notion that Britain is the rightful home of original TV drama.

That said, Nurse Jackie is nothing if not a product of America's medical-drama lineage from General Hospital to ER and even Scrubs: darkly comic and richly gruesome, it is ER on amphetamines, or if you prefer, Scrubs with The Wire injected into its veins.

That it is cleverly written was clear within moments of the opening shots. In no time, we knew that Jackie Peyton is a complicated character, a terrific, dedicated nurse yet not slow to violate medical ethics – for example, by forging an organ donor card when a motorbike messenger died. That it is well acted we knew even before the opening shots. Falco's name alone offers a guarantee. But it was nonetheless a revelation to see how cleverly written, how well acted, and for that matter how stylishly directed it is.

We don't yet know whether the religious imagery recurs throughout the series, but it was repeatedly evident in last night's opening episode. Even a simple shot of a New York hospital corridor was somehow lit like a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation, while Jackie is plainly something of a flawed saint, addicted to painkillers and not averse to stealing from the pockets of a pyschopathic slasher protected by diplomatic immunity, whose severed ear she flushed unceremoniously down the toilet, and whose stolen money she discreetly passed to the near-destitute pregnant girlfriend of the dead messenger.

Falco inhabits Jackie as believably as she inhabited Carmela, which is about the highest praise I can bestow, although in a dark comedy that's an even greater achievement, because inevitably there are scenes that strain credibility. Could any nurse break quite so many rules while holding down a reputation as the consummate professional? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.

Paradoxically, for such an original work, Nurse Jackie in some faintly disappointing ways obeys American television convention. The unwritten rule that there has to be an English accent in there somewhere is indulged with the casting of Eve Best as Jackie's soulmate, Dr Eleanor O'Hara. Why do the Americans do this? To add a perceived touch of class? Whatever, I never wholly believed in Alex Kingston when as Dr Elizabeth Corday she stalked the wards in ER, and dear old Jane Leeves as Daphne Moon represented the single duff note in the otherwise majestic symphony that was Frasier. The early signs, I'm afraid, is that Dr O'Hara is similarly misconceived.

The other nod to convention in last night's episode was less to do with American TV and more to do with American morality. We saw Jackie stealing, forging and snorting drugs. We saw her scoring painkillers in return for sex with the hospital pharmacist. But the big revelation, the shocker right at the end, was that she turned out to be, wait for it... married. Jackie is an adulterer, which stateside – witness the decline and fall of Tiger Woods – is the biggest no-no of all.

Sexual infidelities reared up again in Dear Diary, a rather odd little programme in which the actor Richard E Grant, himself a committed diarist, looked into the lives of other famous diarists (such as the rampantly promiscuous Joe Orton, murdered by his cuckolded lover) and treated us to his conclusions by way of – how deliciously pat – a video diary.

Now, I realise that in some quarters it verges on lèse-majesté to speak ill of a star of Withnail and I, but I've never much cared for Richard E Grant. He's fine as an actor, but as himself he seems mannered and just a little obsequious. Here, the obsequiousness was cranked up to full volume, firstly when he all but collapsed laughing at Joe Orton's sister's (not especially amusing) readings from her late brother's diaries, and then when he decribed the Palladium as a legendary theatre with a stage graced by such effervescent stars as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Sheila Hancock. I had to rewind my DVD. Did he really say Sheila Hancock? Had he perhaps said Tony Hancock? But would even Tony Hancock belong in a sentence with Garland and Sinatra? All became clear when he then arrived in Sheila Hancock's dressing-room to talk about Kenneth Williams's diaries. I rewound again. Was he being charmingly ironic to bracket her, marvellous actress though she is, with Frankie and Judy? Nope, I'm pretty sure he was just fawning.