Well, it certainly took long enough, but Jackie Peyton's secrets and demons have finally been revealed. Not to us we've known for three seasons that Edie Falco's flinty title character on Nurse Jackie has been an adulterous pill-popper with anger-management problems. But as entertaining as this series is, it was straining credulity that Jackie could get away with so much for so long. There are antiheroes who, when they're well written, can be fun to watch. But the antihero enablers surrounding them? Eventually they just seem like dupes and suckers.
Which is why the fourth season of Nurse Jackie is so bracingly good. It began with Jackie in rehab, an excellently abrupt way for series creators Liz Brixius and Linda Wallum to acknowledge that they were really committing to seeing Jackie get committed to an institution, and to getting sober. Nurse Jackie has always benefited from being essentially an hour-long drama crammed into a half-hour sitcom format this yields a brisk pace and a guarantee that no serious moment will maunder into melodrama and no gag will be milked for too many laughs. Thus Jackie's whirlwind tour through a 12-step program seemed both convincing (Jackie fought surrender every second, until she just caved in and accepted, a typical addict's journey) and mercifully brief. And having her husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), finally know that Jackie had an affair with co-worker Eddie (Paul Schulze) allowed for the kind of marital explosions that Falco can set off with her Emmy-award-winning skill.
Just as satisfying this season are the changes at All Saints Hospital. In a bold but successful move, Anna Deavere Smith's Gloria Akalitus has been demoted to head nurse with the introduction of a new administrator, played by Bobby Cannavale. Cannavale's Dr. Michael Cruz is a smooth operator who is adept at corporate glad-handing but is not without a conscience, and Cannavale does a lot to make Cruz's contradictions engrossing. Putting Akalitus out on the hospital floor among the show's nurses, including the marvelous Merritt Wever as Zoey and Stephen Wallem as the lovably hangdog Thor, solves a problem that's long troubled the show: Akalitus was often a garish cartoon. Now, shrunk down to human scale, she's a more realistic, sympathetic person a leader brought low.
Nurse Jackie still abounds with eccentric patients and their funny-painful medical crises (such as a gentleman with an, ahem, ''penis fracture'' brought on by a combination of vigorous self-abuse and Zoloft). But Jackie, fighting to remain drug-free even as she battles for her family, her patients, and her colleagues, has entered a new, welcome phase. She's in recovery, and not sure she deserves that blessing. And we know that a guilty, defensive Jackie is the best Jackie to watch. B+