Take two nurses and ...

I recently completed an extended work assignment for a college of nursing and got to know many nurses in professional and casual situations. TV has taken a few years to catch up to the notion that nursing's a booming and valuable profession worthy of dramatization, but clearly its time is here.

The nurses I met (and you) would surely prefer the image depicted by Jada Pinkett Smith in TNT's new hour-long HawthoRNe: dedicated, resourceful, frequently frazzled, but willing to bend a rule in a heartbeat to ease a patient's suffering. We'd better pray the reality is not closer to the portrayal offered by Edie Falco in Showtime's original series Nurse Jackie: cynical, Percocet-snorting, thieving, shtupping the pharmacist during breaks, and generally bone-weary of fighting the system and the sicknesses every day.

"What do you call a nurse with a bad back?" Jackie asked ruefully in the premiere episode. "Unemployed!" No doubt that nursing is stressful, often thankless work. And while the truth of the occupation lies somewhere between these polar extremes, HawthoRNe (8 p.m. Tuesdays) and Nurse Jackie (10:30 p.m. Mondays) represent breakthrough television on multiple levels. Both showcase strong female leads in medical dramas, where nurses historically have been little more than sex objects or second bananas.

As Christina Hawthorne, chief nursing officer at a Richmond, Virginia, hospital, Smith (also known as the wife of the most popular movie hero on Earth) is stepping out for the first time as a weekly TV star, and doubling as executive producer.

For Falco, playing nurse Jackie Peyton in a crumbling New York City medical center is a baby step from Carmela Soprano, the character that has defined her career. She sports a close-cropped, efficient blond hairdo; no more high-rise bouffant here. Falco tells interviewers that in The Sopranos she always felt she was reacting to events already transpired; she longed to be in the middle of the action. She got her wish.

Because pay cable is to regular cable what cable used to be to regular TV, Nurse Jackie is infinitely darker and more desperate than HawthoRNe would ever dare, dropping F-bombs like used syringes. In its half-hour format, Jackie has the feel of some macabre M*A*S*H-like sitcom — Falco as the valiant but imperfect crusader warring against waves of institutional lunacy. And she's wonderful at it.

Both series revolve singularly around their remarkable leading ladies. The supporting casts, despite Judging Amy's delightfully wacko Jillian Armenante as a charge nurse on HawthoRNe and Anna Deavere Smith as Jackie's flinty administrator, are largely forgettable. While Smith is transfixing on screen — even after more than 20 films, one forgets how stunningly lovely she is — the problem with HawtoRNe is that it creates few new avenues for her to travel. When the show tries to be mildly titillating (a hot blond nurse giving hand jobs to patients — how racy), Grey's Anatomy has been there, done that. When it shoots for blood-and-guts shock value with incoming patients, well, we've endured 15 seasons of ER. HawthoRNe originally was titled Time Heals, and maybe it will. For now, however, the most interesting and compelling nurse on television is that Soprano lady.

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