"Nurse Jackie" and "United States of Tara" return tonight

Showtime is the network built by women. Starting with Weeds in 2005, Showtime’s emergence as a drama powerhouse on par with HBO coincided with focusing on dark comedies about strong female characters (even in ostensibly male-oriented shows like Dexter and Californication). Two of the shows responsible for the network’s premium cable dominance return for third seasons tonight, after second season finales that asked as many questions as they answered.

When we last saw Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie, things were starting to catch up with the no-bullshit title character. After two seasons of popping pills, banging pharmacists, and generally carrying on a double life, Jackie faced an intervention of sorts, as husband Kevin and best friend Dr. O’Hara finally started to figure things out. Her reaction? “My name is Jackie, and I’m an addict.” Cue tear-stained, molar-baring laughter. “Blow me.” It was a pitch-perfect end to the season.

While the show is sharply written and features a host of well-drawn characters, Nurse Jackie fits Showtime’s high concept model to a tee: main character strives for normalcy while dealing with a deep, dark – and possibly illegal – secret. As shows like Weeds and Dexter have found success, the greatest challenge seems to be making the show compelling while continuing to raise the stakes. However, with no end game in sight, the plots start to strain under the weight, pushing on the audience’s credulity.

Jackie now faces the same problem. With things out in the open, what is the show about? From the finale, a mea culpa from Jackie followed by a long recovery seems neither in character or particularly interesting. Judging by the trailer, it looks like Jackie’s infidelity remains a secret; the Jackie-Kevin-Eddie dynamic will be further complicated as Kevin’s sister Tunie (Jaimie Alexander) enters the picture. With that new twist, and the best hospital staff dynamic since early Scrubs, watching Jackie dig a deeper hole is as much schadenfreude-filled fun as ever.

While Nurse Jackie is somewhat hamstrung, United States of Tara continues to expand upon its premise. The nature of Toni Collette’s dissociative character allows for new developments, within reason. From the original trio of personalities (Alice, Buck, and T), new elements of Tara’s psyche have emerged: her id personified as Gimme, her internal therapist Shoshana, and the infantile Chicken. It’s a bit of a full house, but each break-off persona is organically linked to a specific stress or trauma, and watching Collette stretch and contort into each role is fascinating.

After hitting a wall in her treatment and the search for the root causes of her condition, Tara continued down the rabbit hole in the second season. With help from her sister Charmaine, she found Mimi, the woman with whom the girls were inexplicably fostered during their youth (and the model for Alice). As the girls finally confront their parents, their mother’s evasive behavior and their father’s worsening mental health only raised more questions (is their mysterious half-brother really gone? Probably not). Meanwhile, the family dealt with their own issues: Charmaine and Kate broke off unhealthy relationships, Marshall confronted his sexuality, and Max (the best husband ever) struggled to hold the whole mess together.

From the trailer, it looks like a new persona will enter the mix, along with some new people: the magnificent Eddie Izzard returns to TV as Tara’s psychology professor. And while Max, Charmaine, Kate, and Marshall will undoubtedly have their own trials and tribulations, the show belongs to Tara – all of her.

Showtime runs Monday nights, at least for the next few months. Nurse Jackie airs at 10PM followed by United States of Tara at 10:30PM.

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