'Nurse Jackie' Season 5 review: New direction a letdown after a standout season

nurse-jackie-edie-falco-eve-best-ohara-season-5-showtime.jpg (Warning: The following "Nurse Jackie" Season 5 review contains minor plot spoilers and a few general storyline details not revealed in the season premiere. We're not trying to give anything away, but proceed with caution if you're spoiler sensitive.)

After a season in which Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" redefined itself as essential viewing, anything less is going to feel like a disappointment. And while recovering addict Jackie still hasn't relapsed at the beginning of Season 5, her series is taking several steps backwards.

Season 4 started with a bang: Jackie's marriage was in pieces, she voluntarily entered rehab, her best friend Dr. O'Hara ( Eve Best) was pregnant and her colleagues were thrown for a loop by All Saints' aggressive and arrogant new administrator Mike Cruz ( Bobby Cannavale). The season took off from there, making brilliant use of every member of its ensemble to tell a terrific arc about personal and professional turmoil and what it takes to summon the strength to move forward. It also provided multiple Emmy winner Edie Falco with some of the finest material of her career, no small feat for the former "Sopranos" star.

nurse-jackie-morris-chestnut-ike-prentiss-showtime.jpgSeason 5 opens with a comparative whimper. There's plenty of business to take care of, but the stakes are considerably lower. Jackie is still sober, Cruz is gone, new mom O'Hara is re-prioritizing her life and there are two new additions to the All Saints staff -- recurring guest stars Morris Chestnut as Dr. Ike Prentiss and Betty Gilpin as Dr. Carrie Roman -- as well as a couple of familiar faces unsurprisingly back in place. The biggest dramatic conflict comes from Jackie's estranged husband Kevin ( Dominic Fumusa), who isn't going to forgive her lies, infidelity and reckless behavior anytime soon.

The first several episodes of Season 5 aren't wildly different than where "Nurse Jackie" was as a series back in Season 3. There's a relaxed vibe, a tone that confidently shifts between drama and comedy, and an ensemble of likeable actors doing generally fine work in mostly broadly drawn characters. Falco and co-star Merritt Wever (as adorably effervescent nurse Zoey Barkow) fare the best because their roles are the most carefully crafted and they both have a knack to bring out the best in any scenario.

But when a show reaches the level that "Nurse Jackie" did in Season 4, reverting to cruise control isn't enough -- and "Jackie" is just coasting through its new run. Part of that is likely due to a major behind the scenes change: creators and former showrunners Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem departed the series at the end of Season 4 for personal reasons. They were responsible for the slow build of the first three seasons, but also knew exactly why, when and how to drop the hammer in Season 4.

New showrunner Clyde Phillips ("Dexter") clearly doesn't want to rock the boat too much, but also doesn't seem to have a plan (or maybe a mandate) to really push the series and its characters forward in a major way. Instead of going pedal to the metal, Phillips pulls back and gives "Jackie" a lighter tone (as if caving to the critics who carp that this frequently bittersweet but often sharply funny series shouldn't be considered a comedy) and far less urgency than it had before. Where every Season 4 episode ended in a way that immediately made you want to see what happened next, it wouldn't be surprising if viewers find Season 5 episodes start to pile up unwatched on their DVR.

nurse-jackie-betty-gilpin-carrie-roman-showtime.jpgOne of the unenviable challenges of following Season 4 is the giant hole left in the wake of Cannavale's departure -- he was always just a special guest star but played a central role throughout last season and affected nearly every core character due to his position in the hospital. Both Chestnut and Gilpin have vaguely antagonistic characters, but the roles aren't meaty enough or played with enough charisma and authority to even compare. (Gilpin's ditzy sexpot resident seems on hand primarily to up the show's previously low quota of bare skin to standard Showtime levels.) The good news is that Cruz eventually does return in a far more limited guest capacity, and Cannavale's few scenes bring out the very best in the always excellent Falco.

While Falco's performance remains reason enough for fans to stick around, there's cause for concern about where her character is headed, and not for the usual reasons. With the "When will Jackie get caught?" question firmly in the rear-view mirror, the suspense has shifted to "Will Jackie relapse?" And instead of addressing that directly, the show seems intent to explore how Jackie can keep her life under control without resorting to pills to numb the pain. She even has a new love interest ("Rescue Me's" Adam Ferrara as NYPD officer Frank Verelli) to challenge her seeming inability to maintain a functional relationship. It's unique territory to mine with the character, but feels like postponing the inevitable (a relapse) instead of laying the proper groundwork that would help turn a logical dramatic twist into legitimate tragedy.
Photo/Video credit: Showtime