Piper-paying time ... Nurse Jackie is back!

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Finally.

After three seasons of Jackie (Edie Falco, "The Sopranos") successfully covering up her misdeeds time and again, Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" finally stops spinning its wheels and moves forward as season four begins (9 tonight followed by new episodes of "The Big C" and "The Borgias").

The problem facing the writers of "Nurse Jackie" is the same one that faced the writers of "United States of Tara" or "The Sopranos" or "The Shield": When you create a TV show around an anti-hero, you run the risk of repeating the same cat-and-mouse games lest you undercut the premise of the show. But without significant change, there's no forward momentum and a show stagnates.

"Nurse Jackie" has tried to thread the needle throughout its run, bringing best friend Dr. O'Hara (Eve Best) in on Jackie's drug habit and last season's dissolution of Jackie's marriage to Kevin (Dominic Fumusa).

As season four begins, more of Jackie's closely kept secrets come out. It's about time. In order to grow as a TV show, Jackie needed some growth as a person. She even goes to rehab for a few episodes, and viewers probably won't miss her at All Saints Hospital.

As much as "Nurse Jackie" is a star vehicle for Ms. Falco, the Jackie character has always been the least fun to spend time with. Scenes with Dr. O'Hara or adorably awkward nurse Zoey (Merritt Wever) or cringe-inducing Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) or squishy-faced Dr. Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) delight in their humor; too often scenes with Jackie, through no fault of Ms. Falco's, are laced with bad personal choices that blunt the humor generated by Jackie's work colleagues.

This season the workplace is in for upheaval as the Quantum Bay corporation -- Thor (Stephen Wallem) calls it "Quantanamo Bay" -- acquires All Saints and newcomer Dr. Cruz (Bobby Cannavale) starts making changes that shake up the trauma department.

The show's writers avoid making Dr. Cruz a total corporate villain, particularly after a revelation in the season's fourth episode.

Putting Jackie in rehab actually works out well comedically, too, because she's surrounded by a new batch of odd characters to bounce off, including actress Margaret Colin as a shoplifting Southerner and a potty-mouthed grandma. Better yet, a counselor calls Jackie on her selfish bad behavior in ways no other character has. If there's any disappointment in the new season of "Nurse Jackie," it's only that Jackie doesn't stay in rehab longer.


'Nurse Jackie'

When: 9 tonight, Showtime.

Starring: Edie Falco.

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published April 8, 2012 12:15 PM


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