NURSE JACKIE. 10 tonight, Showtime.

UNITED STATES OF TARA. 10:30 tonight, Showtime.

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BODY OF PROOF. 10 p.m. tomorrow, 6ABC.

HOW DIFFICULT does a woman have to be before she's a little too difficult for network TV?

Can she pop pills all day long while snapping people's heads off, the way Hugh Laurie's "House" does on Fox?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Edie Falco's "Nurse Jackie," could probably match Dr. House pill for pill - and she's out there saving lives, too - but her activities are confined to Showtime, which brings her back for a third season tonight, along with the many high-maintenance people (of both genders) living inside Toni Collette's Kansas homemaker Tara Gregson on "United States of Tara."

"Jackie," taking up where last season's unsuccessful intervention left off, delves even deeper into her addiction this year, leaving a lot of the comedy to Falco's co-stars, including Anna Deavere Smith, whose character's admiration for first lady Michelle Obama - and hospital statuary - leads to some priceless moments.

Eddie Izzard ("The Riches") joins "Tara" as her psych professor and yet another destabilizing influence.

Smart women, insane choices: It's practically its own genre, thanks to cable, and particularly Showtime, which has also given us Laura Linney as a terminal cancer patient making enormous changes at the last minute in "The Big C," Mary-Louise Parker as a pot-pushing suburban mom in "Weeds" and Billie Piper as a philosophical hooker in "Secret Diary of a Call Girl."

Broadcasters envious of the edge that they see cable programmers exploiting for ink and Emmys have experimented, with limited success, in recent years with making their male leads a little less shiny. But as Fox found out with its con-artist hero in "Lone Star" last fall, there is a limit to how bad even a good-looking guy can be on broadcast TV, a limit that never seems to have existed for anyone on, say, HBO's "The Sopranos."

Women? Outside a soap opera like ABC's "Desperate Housewives," they've tended to be even better-behaved than men on broadcast TV ("The Good Wife," anyone?), which is why the not-terrible ratings for NBC's "Harry's Law" (10 tonight, NBC 10), in which Kathy Bates plays a very cranky lawyer in the full flush of middle age, might be worth a closer look.

Still, like "The Good Wife," "Harry's Law" is a lawyer show, and we're familiar with lawyer shows, even if we're not so familiar with shows starring people who actually look like lawyers.

We're also familiar with medical shows and cop shows.

ABC's "Body of Proof," which premieres tomorrow and stars Dana Delany ("Desperate Housewives," "China Beach") as a former brain surgeon working as a Philadelphia medical examiner, is trying to be both.

Don't look for Delany on the streets of Center City, which has had a little CGI work done so that Providence, R.I., could act as its stand-in (murder victims will come from places like Narberth and Wynnefield, and there's a curious and gratuitous reference to a family named Roberts, described as being "as close to royalty as Philadelphia gets").

Do expect to see Delany's character, Dr. Megan Hunt, out on the not-Philadelphia streets a lot in the show, since this particular M.E., who's a bit of a Sherlock Holmes type, tags along with police on their investigations and isn't shy about interrogating suspects. Or even accusing them.

Which can be kind of annoying. And not just to the cops she's upstaging (who include Sonja Sojn, of "The Wire").

Megan is meant to be annoying. But just a bit. And she's working on it. But just a bit.

You see, there was a car accident a few years ago that screwed up her surgical skills. (You actually will see the car accident in at least one episode, in flashback, and it will be referred to often in the first couple of episodes, lest viewers forget between commercials why it is that Megan's so annoying.)

Even before the car accident, she appears to have been less than perfect, having ended up divorced and without custody of her daughter.

Because she worked so hard at her previous job. Which was - remember, because there's going to be a quiz - brain surgery.

Nothing would make me happier than to see Delany, who's one of my favorite actresses, starring in a smart network drama that gave her the kind of range Laurie gets in "House" or Falco and Collette get on Showtime.

If only "Body of Proof" were that show.

So what do Falco and Collette have that Delany doesn't, besides gigs on a channel where they can say the f-word?

Writers who don't insist on fully explaining their characters.

I've now seen 2 1/2 seasons each of "Nurse Jackie" and "United States of Tara," and I'm still trying to figure out exactly what drives these women, which, of course, is one of the best reasons to keep watching.

Neither of them is expected to solve a homicide every week. They are instead their own ongoing mysteries. *

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