Nurse Jackie vs Dexter

No, this isn’t a cage match conversation, though that has some real possibilities for another post or a bar chat at a convention. This post is a social commentary.

Having just made my way through the first season of Nurse Jackie (yes, I’m behind), I was struck by the darker and self-destructive characteristics of Jackie and the fact that it has become such a hit.

We seem to be in a golden age of anti-heroes. Not that there haven’t been anti-heroes forever, depending on how you’d like to parse the definition. I’d argue that some of the quintessential Greek and Roman demigods were so flawed and reprehensible by modern standards that they would qualify as well; “anti-hero” is really a contextual judgement.

But we are now in a time when, regularly, we celebrate truly broken people like Jackie, and we root for them often because of, rather than despite, their bad acts–we are amused by them and somehow do social math that forgives the reality of action and morality because of the good she does or the evil we’d like to do. Interestingly, and thus the title today, we celebrate Dexter for his successes and struggles, but the math here seems more acceptable to me; he kills those who would otherwise go free and kill others (and in the rare moment where he screws up, we suffer with him).

These are two very different manifestations and they reflect heavily on the mood and mores of the society in which they thrive. Dexter is today’s Dirty Harry, sweeping the streets by any means necessary and we thank him for it. Jackie, however, is more like Mack the Knife or Lulu with a stethoscope. She manages to do good, but is so broken and flawed that she should be in karmic free-fall.

We’ve had flawed characters on TV almost since the beginning. Even The Honeymooners or Lucy were seriously flawed people, it was what made them relate-able, and in there way, lovable. However, we were more often laughing at them, not laughing with them.  The punishment was their failures. Their rewards, the love and forgiveness of their friends and family… and audiences. Other anti-heroes, such as Archie Bunker, were object lessons and, yet, we found ways to love them as well.

Somehow, the presentations and creations now all feel very different to me. Consider Misfits, who we sort of support, but only in relation to our own morality–we don’t really want to see them hurt… do we? Probably not; they’re sort of redeemable in their own ways. Of course, Misfits is just as much satire as it is story.

I’ve seen periods like this before, though expressed less broadly. Many years ago I saw a production of Othello where the Christopher Walken portrayal of Iago stole the show and won the hearts of the audience, much to my horror. This was during the period just after the ’87 crash, and perhaps that is a clue given our country’s economic woes? Do these darker characters and their actions provide a cathartic release for our frustrations at the way things are?

I don’t really understand what is going on, but I do notice that there is something happening and a sort of existential scream in the form of entertainment appears to be the manifestation.

Oh, for the record, Nurse Jackie would win–Dexter has too many rules that control his behavior.

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