NEW YORK - Edie Falco's star character in Showtime's
snorts drugs, steals money, forges an organ donor's card, has sex on the job with a pharmacist and flushes a severed body part down the toilet - and that's just in the first episode.
Little wonder, then, that some real-life nurses are distressed by the new series.
But if you're an executive at Showtime, trying to grab attention in a crowded television world where you're usually overshadowed by pay-cable competitor HBO, is it better to have nurses love your series or hate it?
Early returns suggest the latter. Nurse Jackie, which premiered last Monday, had the biggest audience of any series premiere in Showtime's history. As soon as those ratings were in, Showtime ordered production of a second season to follow its current 12-episode run.
When the lights went up after one of three screenings of the show that Showtime held for some nurses before the debut, the first thing Barbara Crane said was how appalled she was.
"I don't know what they wanted from us," said Crane, a nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, N.Y., and president of the National Federation of Nurses.
"They couldn't think that those of us in the most ethical profession - and we are the most ethical profession - that we could possibly find that entertaining."
The series' entire first season had already been completed. Crane suspected that Showtime held the screening to foment buzz, maybe a few headlines of rage, to distinguish Nurse Jackie from HawthoRNe, a TNT series premiering tomorrow night, with Jada Pinkett Smith as the head of nurses at a Virginia hospital, or Mercy, a forthcoming NBC midseason series on three attractive nurses.
A Showtime executive said there was no attempt to solicit controversy. But it's better than being ignored, said spokesman Stuart Zakim.
"It's entertainment," he said. "We expect that all of our shows will hit a bone or hit a chord. It's part of what we do on premium television."
Buzz is vital for premium networks, such as Showtime, that rely on subscriptions. Showtime is in 17 million homes, roughly 15 percent of homes with TV.
Nurses are not unanimously against the series, according to Zakim. He said Showtime screened Nurse Jackie for a group of emergency room nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital and more than four in five said they enjoyed it and would recommend it to a friend.
Diana Mason, writing on an American Journal of Nursing blog, said she hadn't seen a TV nurse with such smarts, fierce dedication to her patients and human contradictions since Hot Lips Houlihan on M*A*S*H. One person posted a response calling everyone involved in the series brilliant, while another said she was highly offended.
Tina Gerardi, chief executive officer of the New York State Nurses Association, applauded some of the realism of Falco's character. She was cheered by a scene where the nurse upbraided a young doctor for ignoring her warnings about a patient who later died, then thought its effectiveness was instantly negated when the doctor grabbed Jackie's breast.
Gerardi said she's worried that a negative character would discourage people from joining the profession.
Her association wrote to Showtime requesting a disclaimer be put on the series (Showtime refused). Gerardi posted the exchange of letters on the association's Web site but did little else to draw attention to them.