EMMYS: 'Nurse Jackie's Brixius & Wallem

Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem were romantic partners who broke up, then did a few pilots together, and now are good friends as well as co-creators and showrunners for Showtime’s dark comedy Nurse Jackie. But they are going into the series’ second Emmy comedy nomination competition knowing that star Edie Falco confessed in her 2010 Lead Actress acceptance speech, “I’m not funny.” How to campaign after that? Wallem and Brixius talk to Deadline TV Contributor Diane Haithman about their series that looks at the lighter side of addiction, infidelity, malpractice, dysfunctional families, and death:

DEADLINE: Last year, Nurse Jackie received eight Emmy nominations, and Edie Falco won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. How important were those?
LIZ BRIXIUS: The first year that we were eligible for Emmys was after our second season of shooting, so for two years we didn’t know if we had the kind of show that the TV Academy would respond to at all. Suddenly we realized that, whatever we were doing, somehow we’d hit a vein of gold. That validated us.
LINDA WALLEM: It makes you raise your game throughout the year as you’re shooting.

DEADLINE: Some showrunners insist that Academy members vote according to what’s considered “hot” each season. What do you think?
BRIXIUS: I think they might go in with a few favorites in mind, but watch with a really open mind.  I know for a fact that happened our first year because we were not a show that was on anybody’s radar.

DEADLINE: I understand Nurse Jackie started with a script by longtime CSI writer/producer Evan Dunsky and the two of you were called in to ‘tweak’ it.
WALLEM: Edie was intrigued by the idea of playing an emergency room nurse in New York, and Lionsgate owned the property. Robert Greenblatt said, ‘I know just the gals who should take this and rework it. We had six days.
BRIXIUS: And Bob’s mandate to us was, ‘If I could get Edie Falco’s face on a billboard with the Showtime logo, I will have been the greatest president of Showtime ever.’  We had six days.

DEADLINE: So what needed to be reworked?
BRIXIUS: In Evan’s script, doctors would turn into bats and go hang in the janitor’s closet—because that was happening in Edie’s head. It was all voice-over.  There wasn’t a whole lot for her to play.
WALLEM: As a comic book, it would have been an awesome graphic novel. But as a TV show for someone as grounded as Edie to jump into every week, we had to create a world that was populated with people who would allow her to show all her colors.  We met with Evan, and he gave us his blessing to do whatever we wanted to do. We share creative credit with him because he started that ball rolling.

DEADLINE: How do you make a drug addict, such as Jackie, likable?
BRIXIUS: Edie always said from the very beginning, ‘I don’t care if people like Jackie.’ Linda and I write for actors — we don’t write for networks, we don’t write for executives, we don’t write for writers. People don’t tune in to watch network executives’ decisions.  They don’t tune in to watch writers’ decisions. They tune in to watch people that they like. Drug addicts, when they are in their addiction, are selfish. It kills her every day to get up and know that when she’s using a drug she thinks it’s a sin. But the fact that Jackie thinks to check on a patient, clean a bedpan, or stitch somebody up when she’s jonesing, should tell you that this woman is a saint. And that’s as likable as you can be.
WALLEM: We love it when people come up to us and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m rooting for her.’ We want to shake them up and see that they can love and hate a character. But she is tortured by her choices. She heals people all day, but she is desperately trying to figure out how to heal herself.

DEADLINE: I heard addiction has played a role in your own lives…
BRIXIUS: Linda and I have both spent years in various sorts of recovery from different sorts of addictions. And between us and Edie Falco [a recovering alcoholic], there’s like 60 years of addictions. And we tell these stories without going to the usual pathos. We show addiction in action: a high-functioning, pill-popping nurse.
BRIXIUS: Fran Lebowitz says that writers drink because they have to punish themselves for being creative.  And I don’t drink any more, but I drank a lot. And writing about an addict is constructive rather than destructive. There’s an obvious romance to being the drinking writer. But if I’m drinking, I’m not writing.

DEADLINE: What kind of network notes do you get?
BRIXIUS: ‘We want Jackie to have more sex.’ But that’s not what the show is about. It doesn’t matter if we get nominated or that Edie wins. It’s like that never happened. Everybody has their idea of what they want the show to be.
WALLEM: I feel bad for executives. They are coming from fear: everything is about ratings. Let’s say we have 1.3 million viewers; well, if we were on FX or NBC those are death knell numbers. But wait, we’re on a premium cable channel where you say ratings don’t matter. Honestly, we have really great executives at Showtime. They just have a hard job. I wouldn’t want it. Because, most of the time, we’re not nice to them.

  1. Many years ago, I worked as a writers assistant on a show for which Linda Wallem was a co-EP. She always treated the assistants well – she was always friendly, always giving us dignity, never making us feel like second-class citizens. I’ve worked as a writer on series and writing pilots for the last eight years, and I always think of the example she set when interacting with assistants on shows. She’s a class act and an easy person to root for; glad that Nurse Jackie has been such a success.

  2. I applaud your research – “I understand Nurse Jackie started with a script by longtime CSI writer/producer Evan Dunsky and the two of you were called in to ‘tweak’ it.”

    The concept for the show originated with Caryn Mandabach who was basing it on a friend of hers who is a nurse in NYC. She brought in Evan to write the script.

    Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem did not create the show. They were brought in by Robert Greenblatt, and then Caryn and Evan were ousted out.

    Interesting revisionist history.

    1. Then that’s some serious karma, given how many writers Carsey, Werner, and Mandabach threw under the bus on any of the 17 comedies they had built around insane comedian/comediennes.

  3. Hi Deadline Team:

    Great article Diane Haithman! I LOVED Brixium and Wallem’s story and I truly am addicted to Nurse Jackie. What a talented writing team. Nothing like the breakup of a romantically involved creative partnership with a future. Truly inspiring. Keep Jackie coming1

  4. Funny how people take credit for other people’s hard work and ideas.

    Nurse Jackie is based on the journals of a real emergency room nurse by the name of Jennifer A. Cady (aka JC)

    At one time she had a credit as an associate producer, but seems to have lost that credit.

    It would be nice if she got a credit for “based on the memoirs of JC Cady. Im only saying.

    As usual the big people make out like bandits and the little person gets screwed.

    1. JC’s “Associate Producer” credit shows up on every episode after the co-producer’s credit. Not only is JC loved by the showrunners, writers, and producers, she is extremely valuable to the show’s lovably ironic appeal.

      Personally, I love her.

      1. Hi Ben, thanks for the note. Glad to hear she is appreciated by the crew. But I do wish she could get an Emmy ( ;- )

  5. Edie Falco could read the phone book and get an Emmy, shes such a GREAT actress, whey don’t the movies wake up and give her a role.

  6. So she wants credit for doctor bats? Or for coming up with the idea to have a show about a nurse? Nobody else ever had such an idea before.

  7. There needs to be a tragedy category because this show crowds out the funny (sometimes hilarious) comediennes.

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