Going down in flames

L.A. burns, "Nurse Jackie" fizzles and Courteney Cox inhabits a charred shell of her old TV self in "Cougar Town"

Published August 30, 2009 10:29AM (EDT)

Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie," left, and Courteney Cox in "Cougar Town."
Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie," left, and Courteney Cox in "Cougar Town."

Ah, the many joys of Los Angeles in August! What's more romantic than a freeway of ants running through the kitchen? What's more exhilarating than thick clouds of brown smoke, billowing in the hills and threatening untold tracts of overpriced, overleveraged real estate below?

It's hard not to have a kick in your step on a day like today, when it's 103 degrees outside, the world is in flames, and even the ants are looting, looking to steal the water that the residents of Los Angeles stole from somewhere else, some lusher place where you nonetheless can't get a spray tan with your morning doughnut.

I wonder if, so many decades ago, the robber barons of Los Angeles paused in their diligent and important work of bloodily oppressing various indigenous and imported brown peoples to gaze across this scrubby desert basin with a sense of awe at what it might one day become: an enormous maze of pavement, thirsty lawns and overvalued stucco. How proud they might be, to see that their selfless efforts to rape the land and disempower the laboring classes have paid off in acre upon acre of foreclosures, punctuated only by auto body shops and shitty Chinese restaurants! Los Angeles, glorious and vast, land of roof rats, home of the Whopper!

You don't know Jack(ie)

 Yes, I know that L.A. is a thriving metropolis filled with interesting people and good food and breathtaking vistas. But it's also, occasionally, a stinking, smoky hellhole. To be fair, the smog is nothing like it was back in the early '90s -- except when the hills are on fire. Then the skyscrapers are obscured by dense smoke, the kids and the dogs have to stay inside, and every hour of the day looks like sunset. Sadly, though, the news lady on TV has had so much Botox that she can barely move her mouth, let alone offer up a facial expression appropriate to the spectacle of million-dollar homes engulfed in flames.

This is the ultra-crabby, dystopic perspective I bring to the finale of "Nurse Jackie," which I cannot, in good faith, allow to pass without comment. Because like Los Angeles, which either looks green and charming or overheated, smoggy and plagued by its ill-considered, unsustainable nature, "Nurse Jackie" is alternately winning and pointless, witty and painful, spirited and wildly frustrating.

Sure, we could rave about how convincingly Edie Falco inhabits her role as a devil-may-care E.R. nurse with a drug habit and an unfortunate propensity for cheating on her perfectly wonderful husband with a nice-guy pharmacist. We could discuss Eve Best's delicious turn as the unrepentantly self-centered Dr. O'Hara, or Anna Deavere Smith's almost cartoonish take on unforgiving hospital bureaucrat Mrs. Akalitus.

Or, we could muse about the sociocultural ramifications of not one, not two, but three TV shows about nurses on the schedule this summer and fall, from Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" to TNT's "Hawthorne" to NBC's forthcoming "Mercy," all focused on these tireless heroines struggling to keep their patients alive and well. In the depths of the recession, the harried leisure classes of "Lipstick Jungle" and "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Privileged" have been elbowed out not by doctors or lawyers or Indian chiefs, but by common nurse ladies, fighting the good fight for the common man, armed only with the stubborn, righteous insistence that doctors are, more often than not, self-serving twats. Naturally I don't need to tell you that this us-against-them routine gets old faster than the mumbling zombie woman on the local news, struggling to emote as her city is overcome by hellfire and damnation. And I don't need to mention that "Nurse Jackie" should, by all rights, be the dark and somewhat jaunty antidote to the self-serious foolishness of "HawthoRNe" (oh God, that name alone!) and "Mercy."

 Ultimately, there's only one thing you need to know about the first season of "Nurse Jackie": When the first episode begins, it's tough to understand why Nurse Jackie would cheat on her perfectly dreamy husband, and when the last episode ends, we still don't get it. In other words, we spend 12 episodes watching Jackie act like an asshole without ever understanding why.

 OK, fine, she's an addict. She has a problem, and she's in denial. She still tries, sure. She wants her family to be happy. She really loves Eddie (Paul Schulze), the pharmacist. They have great sex. So do she and her husband. Both of these guys are just swell. But we knew all of this by the end of the first episode, and we never learned a single new thing since then.

 And also, how plausible is it that an exhausted nurse with a serious pill problem and two little kids at home is having wild and delicious sex with not one but two men? Not only that, but a dashing young doctor in the E.R. also decides that this frankly rather haggard, depraved-looking woman is his one true love?

 Just as Los Angeles pretends to be a suitable home for several million human beings, when it is, in truth, a horrible sprawling sham packed with overpriced stucco hovels on tiny tracts of land, a gigantic human mistake that demands resources pumped and trucked and shipped in from faraway places, so, too, does "Nurse Jackie" pretend to be a comedy (or a drama?) suitable for several million viewers, when it is, in truth, a disjointed, reckless sham packed with bewitching jokes, a wicked romp that ultimately goes nowhere. At the end of the season, Jackie is the same mysterious blank slate that she was at the beginning.

And when Eddie finds out that she has a husband and kids, what happens? Nothing. Eddie gets drunk and acts weird, apparently without blowing Jackie's cover, and Jackie is left freaking out and scarfing drugs, just like she was at the beginning.

That's not a cliffhanger. That's a flying leap off a cliff, landing with a Wile E. Coyote thud in the dust. We watch the dust cloud rise and then, the credits roll. Without any character development, there is no story. We feel about as confused as Eddie does when he sees that Jackie is living a double life. He never really knew Jackie at all, and neither did we.


Blowing in the wind

But while I'm feeling crabby and unforgiving, it's probably time to conquer the worst new show of the fall season, hands down: ABC's "Cougar Town" (premieres 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23), a comedy that's at once insipid, noxious, offensive, and just plain bad  -- hilariously bad, in fact. This is a show so utterly devoid of comedy that it'll make you laugh out loud.

Courteney Cox plays Jules, a desperate, jittery, outspoken, pathetic middle-aged woman with a son who's constantly embarrassed by her. Isn't that karmic retribution for having played the sort of hopelessly stylish, effortlessly wealthy, easily embarrassed young person on "Friends" that cringes at ever becoming pathetic and middle-aged? Just as Jules publicly humiliates her son, she also publicly humiliates Monica Gellar.

But most of all, Courtney Cox should really consider firing her agent and her manager and breaking up with every single friend who allowed her to sign on to this wretchedly, hideously awful sitcom. In fact, it boggles the mind that she's not smart enough to notice that this show is absolutely cringe-inducing and scary.

There are so many examples of creepiness here that it's hard to know where to start. In the first minute of the show, Jules examines her body flaws in the mirror and announces that she looks "like a farm animal." She summarizes by proclaiming, "Crap." And we're off to an enlightened and oh-so-amusing start!

But let's skip the ridiculous details and get right to Cox's best lines:

"Look at that cute guy right there. I'd like to lick his body!"

"You know how it goes, I was 19, I started thinking with my coochie-cooch and then bam, I had a kid!"

"Man, you are hot as balls!"

Yes, she did actually say "coochie-cooch." Jules isn't just an embarrassment to moms or to women in general, she's an embarrassment to humanity at large.

But the best part is when Jules announces to her younger lover, "OK, I'm going to do something that I have not done in years. I told my husband that I hated it, but I don't hate it, I love it." You can only assume that she's going to pull out a bag of cookies or some other misdirection. Instead, she starts unbuttoning the guy's pants. Get it? She's going to give him ... a blow job! Teehee!

Then -- you guessed it -- her son and ex-husband walk in. "There's my boy!" Jules yelps, and her husband says, "Ohhh, you said you hated that!"

Why is comedy this bad simultaneously depressing and vaguely decadent, like smoking crack with your mentally unstable cousin?

Not that I'm suggesting you should move to "Cougar Town," but you should at least stop by for a visit, so you can marvel at the depraved goings-on along with me. After all, there'll be plenty of mediocre new shows on TV this fall, but it might be years before a sitcom this unnervingly awful comes along again. And if there's one thing that's more romantic than ant freeways and billowing clouds of smoke and overpriced desert real estate, it's got to be deeply stupid comedies about pathetic middle-aged women, the roof rats of this golden, glowing age.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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