Nurse Jackie asks us to laugh at things that really aren’t that funny: a drug addicted nurse, a grieving mother, a dying child. These suffering people, according to Nurse Jackie, come to the emergency room of All Saints Hospital on “the worst day of their lives.” As all good dark comedies must be, Nurse Jackie is twisted, bleak, pessimistic, irreverent and, of course, hilarious.
Nurse Jackie drips with product placement and the product is theology. So I was eager to read the reviews to see what others thought about the theological content of the show. I turned to the Nancy Franklin’s review in The New Yorker and was surprised.
Missing from it was any mention of the prominent religiosity of the show. Statues of Mary, gaggles of Mother Theresa’s nuns, a chapel of quiet refuge, murals of Biblical scenes, an 8 billion dollar search for the “god particle,” and a floating Miraculous Medal fill each of the first three episodes. Ms. Franklin did not mention the show’s religious themes and imagery. Take for example her analysis of the opening sequence of the first episode. Ms. Franklin writes: “One thing we learn about Jackie right away is that she uses drugs to get through the day.” Not exactly. Before we get to the pills, Jackie tells us that one of the best pieces of advice she ever got came from her 10th grade teacher, Sister Jane de Chantal. Sister Jane used to say that “the people with the greatest capacity for good are the ones with the greatest capacity for evil.” “Smart nun,” says Jackie remembering her teacher. Here is the theological premise upon which the whole series seems to be founded, and of which Jackie’s drug addiction is merely a piece of the of the much larger puzzle—why good people do bad things.
As a wise friend of mine recently noticed, some of the most exciting theology is being done on television (usually the premium channels). The creators of Nurse Jackie wrestle with the big questions. They are on a quest for “the God particle,” the thing that will resolve the opening tension created by Jackie’s recollection of Sister de Chantal’s axiom. However, good television never wants to resolve tension completely or the viewers go away, and herein might be the real theological point. While there is a God, there is no God “particle” that can be grasped and made to fit neatly into our puzzling human condition. God isn’t meant to fill the gaps of our misunderstanding of the human condition. On the contrary, saints like Saint Jane de Chantal and nurses like Jackie are meant to fill the gaps with service and compassion in spite of their own participation in life’s puzzle.