How much change is too much change? That's the key question for any returning TV show. Too much evolution from one season to the next can create a frustrating, disjointed viewing experience, as anyone who has been watching "Weeds" for the last seven seasons knows all too well.
"Weeds" has changed so much -- from the story of an upper-class suburban mom selling pot out of desperation to a romance between a white woman and a Mexican drug-cartel kingpin to the adventures of a downwardly mobile family on the lam to whatever the heck was going on last season -- that it's essentially unrecognizable from the show that launched in 2005. Perhaps uncoincidentally, it has just been canceled, and will get only one more sure-to-be-confusing season before it's gone for good.
"Nurse Jackie," meanwhile, long represented the other, equally frustrating end of the change spectrum. It was the same story on an endless loop: Emergency room nurse Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) tells lies and snorts painkillers -- re-up and repeat. It was still well worth watching, because it featured one of the best casts on television: Every week Falco, Eve Best, Merritt Wever and Anna Deavere Smith wowed with amazing performances, making "more of the same" seem like something wonderful.
But the question that animated Seasons 1 through 3 of "Nurse Jackie" never altered: Just how far out on that nutty ledge, the show asked again and again, could Jackie go? Every time the potential for real change reared its head -- because Jackie was about to be busted as an addict, or as an adulterer, or as a nurse who took ridiculous liberties for the sake of her patients -- she would somehow live to lie another day. This couldn't go on forever. By the end of Season 3, she was just centimeters from the abyss.
Then this year everything changed. Jackie's marriage broke up, she went to rehab, and she lost control of her precious emergency room when a new for-profit company took over All Saints' Hospital and installed Dr. Mike Cruz (Bobby Cannavale) as the ER's new administrator. As the Season 4 tag line put it, Jackie was "Out of excuses. Out of tricks. Out of control." Change was long overdue, but had too many parameters been tweaked?
The answer is: absolutely not. It was just what the show needed. Anna Deavere Smith's Gloria Akalitis, a character the show had never quite known how to use, lost her power, but her bossy, brassy spirit remained. Dr. Eleanor O'Hara (Eve Best) was still Jackie's closest friend, but their relationship wasn't exactly the same as it had been before Jackie betrayed her trust in Season 3. Merritt Wever's goofy, lovable Zoey Barkow remained loyal to Jackie, and still wanted desperately to learn from her and to win her friendship, but now she sometimes had to take care of her mentor. And Jackie learned to face her problems, one day at a time.
The season's final episode was filmed long before it was certain if the show would be renewed, and it would have worked wonderfully as a capper to the entire series. It's an unusually dynamic installment of what can sometimes be a rather static show, and it concludes with one of the most beautifully choreographed climaxes I've ever seen. It features birth, death, and art; tragedy, comedy and the triumph of the human spirit.
Nurse Jackie's creators Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem -- like Jackie Payton and Edie Falco, themselves both recovering addicts -- have now left the show. The new supremo -- former "Dexter" showrunner Clyde Phillips -- is sure to introduce even more changes. But after the triumph of Season 4, that doesn't worry me one bit. I'm confident that Jackie and all her friends and brilliant co-workers will handle it with aplomb.