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16 June 2011

If Nurse Jackie were a Saturday morning serial

Gather round, children. Once upon a time the grown-ups of Britain didn't know what to do. They all had children, and wanted more children, but so many children in the house meant that the grown-ups couldn't spend special time together. (No-one used to talk about special time in those days, far less discuss it in front of their children.)

And so the grown-ups built cinemas on every high street, just so that on Saturday mornings, they could send their children there to watch some films made especially for them. (In those days, children, most films were made for grown-ups. Can you imagine that? Films for grown-ups!) And while the children were out, the parents could spend some special time together.

When I was your age, children, I used to go to Saturday morning pictures regularly. It was fun. There were cartoons, a sing-song, and a thrilling serial. What I remember most about the thrilling serials is that each week our hero was apparently killed, trapped in an unescapable situation. And then next week you would find out how he had in fact escaped.

What annoyed me even then was the flimsiness of the escape narrative. Say our hero is trapped down a mineshaft. Blank, sheer walls all around him. Up at ground level the villain has found a heavy safe that just about fits the shaft. In the last scene, he heaves it down the shaft and we see a cloud of dust plume out as it plummets. Surely our hero is crushed to a pulp (as a 10 year old, I'd have liked to see that, even in black and white).

Come back next week and we rewind time a little. Back in the mineshaft our hero finds a door which he had somehow failed to see earlier. A quick shoulder charge and it's open and he (and his dog, or some orphans, or a screaming girl) are out of the shaft just as the safe falls. I felt cheated. Almost wanted the hero, his dog, the orphans, and above all the screaming silly girl, dead.

The memory of this eases my pain at the news that Sky Atlantic have bought the third series of Nurse Jackie, which means I won't see it. In fact, I've come to consider this a good thing. For those who haven't seen it, the eponymous Jackie is a senior nurse in a New York hospital. She has a difficult home life, and an addiction to prescription drugs. In series 2, we saw how this got her deeper and deeper into trouble. She lied to her husband and to her only friend and right at the end of the series these lies unravelled. The husband and friend both found out what she had been doing. What will become of Jackie? Will the falling safe smash her to a pulp (in full colour)?

Of course it won't. At the end of series 1, the drug addiction seemed to have single-handedly crushed her and she lay in an apparent coma on the floor of a hospital toilet. At the start of series 2, this was - essentially - forgotten. Jackie just picked herself up and carried on. It was worse than the sudden discovery of a door in the mineshaft. It was the equivalent of acting as if the safe had never been dropped. There never was a safe. I felt cheated.

Of course the safe is never going to hit Jackie. Somehow, the script will find a way for her to continue more or less as before. She has to continue to be a senior nurse with a drug habit and a difficult home life, because that's what people like seeing: that's why there is a third series. I'm sure that if I saw the start of the new series I'd feel cheated again. And this will get worse the more series there are. The end of each series will see Jackie closer and closer to the edge, so that each following series will need increasingly contorted explanations and evasions to return her to the starting point. The only difference really is that Jackie's cliff-hangers take a lot longer than a week to build.

I guess it's economics. It costs a lot to stage a programme like Nurse Jackie and the production company probably doesn't start making profit until the third or fourth series. If a programme survives that long, it becomes increasingly unlikely it's going to change significantly: its very success ossifies it.

So I've added a second rule to my guide to watching American TV: only ever watch the first two series of any long-running show.That way, there's a chance you'll remember it with fondness and not grow to hate it.

Thank you, then, Sky.

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