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'Nurse Jackie's' New Showrunner on Fresh Starts, Comedy, 'Dexter' Similarities

Boarding the Edie Falco starrer for his first season, former "Dexter" showrunner Clyde Phillips talks with THR about making the dark comedy funny and exploring Jackie's impulsive nature and addictive personality.

Nurse Jackie Season 5 Premiere Episodic - H 2013
Ken Regan/SHOWTIME
"Nurse Jackie"

Showtime's Nurse Jackie returns for its fifth season Sunday, marking the Edie Falco starrer's first under new showrunner and Dexter alum Clyde Phillips.

After a fourth-season finale that left the fate of three All Saints regulars up in the air, the series returns for a fresh start with Jackie painfully formalizing her divorce from Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), Gloria Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) and Eddie (Paul Schulze) back on staff alongside new additions Morris Chestnut and Betty Gilpin.

Meanwhile, Jackie will face new obstacles as a mother when her daughters begin to feel the impact of growing up with an addict and as a single woman when she catches the eye of a blue-collar cop.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Phillips to preview the changes to the Showtime dramedy.

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The Hollywood Reporter: This is your first season as showrunner on Nurse Jackie. How did you approach it?
Clyde Phillips: I wanted to change it up somewhere between a lot and a little (laughs). The show needed some change. Some of my stated missions were to have the show be funny again. It wasn't a comedy even though it was a half-hour and in the comedy category. I wanted to make it funny again and more authentic. Here's a woman who has been a drug addict her whole life and lies in the workplace. She fell in love, had a family, had a family at work and lived a life of telling lies. It's a lot of work and a lot of lying to be a drug addict, and now she has to face her new life -- sober. In a way, it's an origin story -- it's the way people usually start out. With every new experience she has now, she doesn't have the cloud or security blanket of drugs and she has to do it raw.

THR: Last season explored Jackie's struggles with sobriety. What's the theme this season?
Phillips: The theme is consequence and also beginnings. Facing your life from a fresh perspective for a middle-age woman is really difficult; not everybody succeeds. The challenges and temptation is always there. They say, "Once an addict always an addict," and it's just what you do about it that matters.

THR: What kind of changes can we except to see this year?
Phillips: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree in Jackie's house. The habits are there and the temptations are there and they will take an emotional toll on Jackie and on all of her relationships. And she's going to meet a guy: Frank (Adam Ferrara).

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THR: Exec producer Richie Jackson told us back in June that you may be exploring Jackie's addictive personality. How will we see that?
Phillips: We'll explore the impulsive nature of her addictive personality in a couple of ways. She's in a new relationship and is nervous about it and has to go about it maturely for the first time in her life -- she can't let drug speak for her. Also, when she finds out her daughter Grace (Ruby Jerins) is experiencing with drugs, it's pretty difficult for her to have a conversation with her daughter about it.

THR: The hospital has bulked up with two new doctors (played by Morris Chestnut and Betty Gilpin) and Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) is back in charge. How will All Saints be different now that Jackie has come and gone and returned?
Phillips: It's time for Coop (Peter Facinelli) to not be the buffoon anymore. He's a fifth-year doctor in major city hospital. We wanted to legitimize him; he's very funny, and we still use him for comedy but we wanted him to take himself more seriously, so that we can take him more seriously. By elevating him we realized that we needed someone to be a first-year resident, so we brought in Betty Gilpin. She plays Dr. Carrie Roman, who is as much in love with her cell phone as she is with her face. She's a sexy bumbling first-year resident who's scared and who has had the road paved for her all the way. I wanted to make a premium cable show worthy of premium cable audience and make the show sexier. In bringing in Morris Chestnut, we're bringing in a seasoned doctor who has seen it all in Afghanistan and Iraq and nothing surprises him. He ends up taking over the ER. We also wanted a diverse hospital room and to make it look like the neighborhood that it's in: New York.

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THR: Akalitus also seems to be having some memory issues. Are you telling an Alzheimer's story?
Phillips: It seems like that. She has very scary episodes with forgetfulness. Akalitus doesn't want anyone to know she has a secret and doesn't want help -- just like Jackie didn't want help. Jackie, Eddie (Paul Schulze) and others have to conspire to get her blood tested and find out what's wrong with her. And who better to help her with the misappropriation of meds than Eddie?

THR: Jackie is single again and has a new love interest with Frank -- who she can be totally forthcoming with. What was the decision like to give her a new love interest so quickly?
Phillips: He meets her in the third episode when she says she's been divorced for about an hour. What does it say about a guy who would go out with somebody who has been divorced for an hour? We'll explore that. We didn't want Jackie living in a vacuum. We didn't want the drain of divorce, custody battles and Charlie dying at the end of last year. We wanted this to be a comedy. We wanted people to smile while watching this show.

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THR: We know Mike Cruz (Bobby Cannavale) is returning. How has Mike and Jackie's relationship changed since Charlie's death?
Phillips: Mike represents the old way of going: the easy choice. Frank represents the tough choice. Mike represents danger, and Jackie lives a very dangerous life. Frank represents potential and she needs to make a choice.

THR: Will we see the two of them grieving over Charlie?
Phillips: Charlie's death hangs like smoke over the first half of the season. Jackie is deeply affected by it and when she sees Mike it's all crystalized and then resolved in the middle of the season. We don't want to wallow in that. To bring him in at beginning of the season would be a black hole that we'd spend episodes trying to dig ourselves out of. We didn't want to go there. We bring him in just at the perfect time and that forces Jackie to make a really difficult choice.

THR: What's Zoey's arc for the season this year?
Phillips: She's tasked with getting out of the Jackie nest, becoming her own woman and having a relationship with somebody that will knock you off your couch.

THR: How will the new additions to All Saints impact Coop, Thor and Zoey?
Phillips: Coop has to decide if this is what he wants to do. In the course of the season, Coop becomes a really terrific doctor and that gives him such confidence and a bit of swagger. We really enjoyed watching him grow this year.

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THR: Eve Best will have a more limited role this season. How losing the two people she could be herself with (O'Hara and Charlie) impact her?
Phillips: Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is a psychopath and Jackie is sociopath. What made him endearing was the fact that he talked to the audience. The voiceover is what drew you in and got you to understand his life. Jackie's conversations with O'Hara (Eve Best) got you to understand what Jackie was thinking and needing her in her life. When that's taken away, where does she turn? She scrambles a little bit as she needs to be heard and get her thoughts out. O'Hara leaving has huge impact on her. She finds somebody else to talk to, but it's difficult to lose your best friend.

THR: You're coming in after working on Dexter. Aside from the Showtime connection, what similarities do you see?
Phillips: He's a serial killer and she's drug addict. They're both people with deep, dark secrets and have to live life pretending to be normal. That's such a burden because you have to be aware of that every minute of the day. You can't slip. You can't screw up. I was binge watching all the Nurse Jackie episodes and realized the parallels are there. What Dexter does is heinous. There is no support for what he does, but he is humanized. What Jackie does is not a victimless crime because other people in her life are deeply affected by it. She needs somebody to talk to about it. She needs that release and the audience needs to be in on what's going on with Jackie, and most often they are; and that's important.

What are you looking forward to seeing this season on Nurse Jackie? Hit the comments below with your thoughts. NurseJackie returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime. 

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit