After jogging Nurse Jackie out of its storytelling rut — and guiding its fourth season to what many critics called a creative high point and a real turnaround — showrunners Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius made a sudden exit. When the Showtime series premieres its fifth season this Sunday at 9 p.m., things will have shifted under new boss Clyde Phillips, who previously led Dexter. He says both the network and studio had already been thinking of shaking things up, and for the most part, that’s meant a less heavy, less dreary, more overtly comedic approach to continuing the story of a still-sober but struggling former addict. “We wanted it to be a comedy. A dark comedy. It had really become a very heavy drama for a while there,” Phillips said, bringing to mind Edie Falco’s infamously stunned reaction to winning the 2010 Emmy for Lead Comedy Actress (“I’m not funny!”). Early in the new season, Jackie’s already smiling more, seeing a nice guy, and getting unsolicited wardrobe advice from colleagues. Phillips spoke to Vulture about the challenges of taking over a show midstream, and why he says things will still get pretty dark later on.
What specifically did executives at Showtime and Lionsgate want you to rejigger?
They wanted it darker and funnier and with a greater sense of consequence. Jackie’s been a drug addict trying to live a triple life and basically threw a hand grenade into everybody’s lives. They wanted to see the effect of what happens when the shrapnel goes flying around. What happens to everybody else? What happens when you live with that kind of person, or when you trust that kind of person, or when you love that kind of person?
Season four did address a lot of that. Jackie went to rehab, her marriage ended, she lost control of the ER, and she and two of her colleagues were fired for enabling and protecting her. Was it a matter of taking that further this season?
I think the show kind of felt as if it needed a little bit of rebooting and reenergizing. It needed energy. You’ve seen the premiere, and you can see that it cooks. You can tell that it moves. The show just needed to be shaken by the collar a little bit and invigorated.
Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) and Eddie (Paul Schulze) were fired from All Saints, but through circumstances I won’t spoil, they’re back in the hospital, which did feel like a bit of rebooting. Did you ever consider not bringing them back?
There wasn’t any doubt about bringing them back. They’re such good characters and so much a part of Jackie’s life. Jackie can’t be without people she knows in the hospital, people who know her history, because it would leave very little room for storytelling. Part of the reinvigoration of the show was bringing in a couple of new actors, too: Morris Chestnut and Betty Gilpin. We think we upped the stakes a lot, which you’ll see as you get deeper in.
How do the two new doctors function in her life?
The politics of the hospital undergo a great paradigm shift because of the addition of these two characters. Separately, Jackie’s going to meet a new man this season, played by Adam Ferrara. They’ll date. She gets involved for the first time since she’s been sober. It’s terrifying for her, and Edie does it beautifully. Adam so charming and so much fun to be around both for Jackie and the writing staff.
Merritt Wever’s Zoey continues to be sweet and daffy and wonderful, but there’s a noticeable change in Coop. He’s calmed down a lot and seems to have grown up some between seasons. What was the intention there?
That’s totally right. He is a fifth-year doctor for God’s sake, and it’s time to legitimize him. Rather than keep playing the swooning buffoon, we wanted to legitimatize him and really have Peter Facinelli exercise his really good comedic timing and acting chops. We brought in a couple foils for him in both Morris, who ends up taking over the ER, and Betty, with whom he has an affair. He really ends up manning up.
The show feels much lighter, in part because Jackie’s struggling less with being sober. Was that part of your goal?
We wanted it to be a comedy. A dark comedy. It had really become a very heavy drama for a while there. I remember when I was binge-watching the show to see if I wanted to do this gig, I turned to my assistant and said, “This isn’t a comedy. This is a very dark drama.” My mission was to make it a comedy, albeit a dark one. And with the twisted sensibilities of Tom Straw (The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson), who I’ve brought in as a valued collaborator, and Liz Flahive and my own, we were able to get there. We also had the breadth of Edie’s talent, so it wasn’t hard to get those moments.
Even her look has changed. She’s more feminine this season. Her hair’s longer. She gets to dress up more. Was Edie excited about looking less … severe?
I don’t honestly know. We love to make her look good, and she came in with her hair longer this year and we loved the way it looked. We didn’t ask her to change it. She came in wanting to look like that.
Another big difference this season: There’s a fair amount of sex! Which is new! Was that you wanting to make the show feel more like it belonged on premium cable, or —
Yeah, you took the words right out of my mouth. One of the things that we’ve discussed is that this is premium cable television. Let’s get the premium cable content, which includes sex. It’s not just swearing or the drugs.
And there are less drugs now that Jackie’s sober.
Because the premise of the show is that she’s an addict, is there any pressure to have her relapse? Or did you find there were other ways to give her different kinds of obstacles from last year?
Once you’re an addict, you’re still an addict whether you’re using or not. You still have it within you, and it’s how you live day to day. It’s one day at a time, and it can be very difficult and the temptations are there. All the experiences that she’s going through are new. She’s seeing them with clear eyes. That’s challenging and exciting in storytelling, I think. It’s about how other people who know you’ve been an addict perceive you. In terms of obstacles, one thing viewers should keep an eye out for is Jackie’s daughter. We’ll see if the apple and tree are that far away from each other.