Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Killed in the Ratings: “Karen Sisco”

(The 14th entry in a month-long series about American TV crime dramas that debuted with fanfare, but are now largely forgotten.)

Title: Karen Sisco

Starring: Carla Gugino, Robert Forster, and Bill Duke

Original Run: 2003-2004 (10 episodes), ABC-TV

Premise: Taking on a character created by novelist Elmore Leonard and previously portrayed by Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 film Out of Sight (trailer here), Sarasota-born actress Gugino played Karen Sisco, a feisty, sexy, and independent young U.S. deputy marshal working out of Miami, Florida. Sisco spent most of her time locating and apprehending well-armed but often not terribly bright fugitives who tried to hide out in the glitzy, glamorous environs of South Beach, or elsewhere in the southeastern Florida district. And she was extremely good at her job, though some of her male colleagues needed to be taught that through experience--oftentimes to their embarrassment. Although she didn’t have much luck with men on a social basis, she was backed up professionally by two able males: her boss, U.S. Marshal Amos Andrews (Duke), and her father, an ex-Miami police officer turned private eye with the unlikely name of Marshall Sisco (Forster of Banyon and Nakia fame), who frequently served as her confessor. Speaking with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel back in 2003, Gugino--who had co-starred with Michael J. Fox in the first season of Spin City before launching a big-screen career--said: “I wasn’t looking to do a series. But I wanted this character. ... She’s very much a woman yet functions a lot like a bachelor. She has an incredible relationship with her father, which is one of the things I also found to be so great.” The show’s opening episode, “Blown Away,” was based on Elmore Leonard’s 1996 short story, “Karen Makes Out,” which first introduced the Sisco character.

Developed for television by Jason Smilovic

Additional Notes: Karen Sisco seemed to have everything going for it when it debuted on October 1, 2003. It was spun off from a popular theatrical release, it boasted a most photogenic former model as its star, and Danny DeVito (who had previously brought two other Leonard properties to the silver screen--Out of Sight and Get Shorty) was one of the program’s executive producers. In its 2003 Fall Preview edition, TV Guide called Sisco “easily the season’s coolest new show. Wry, ironic, sexy.” Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker struggled to keep from salivating even harder over this series, writing:
“Karen Sisco” is an old-fashioned crime show, which I intend as a compliment--a welcome alternative to the new-fashioned, is-that-a-bloodstained-rug-fiber-or-are-you-just-glad-to-magnify-me crime shows. “Sisco,” by contrast, is a hunt-the-bad-guys series with a heroine who’s stubborn, charming, bourbon-drinking, and occasionally in need of help from her irascible father and his ex-con friends. Indeed, it’s a lot like “The Rockford Files,” except I doubt James Garner’s gams ever looked this good.

Carla Gugino (“Spy Kids”) plays Miami federal marshal Sisco, taking over Jennifer Lopez’s role from director Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 movie “'Out of Sight” ... Lopez was very good, but a bit too steamy to get on [Elmore] Leonard’s wavelength, which is one of ice-cold serenity. Gugino, however, has that tone down. She’s simultaneously calm and dogged in her pursuit of a bank robber or a German cop killer who likes to look for songs featuring the names of women he admires (he works hard to come up with one that includes “Karen”). ...

It’s fun to watch Gugino, who used to snuggle up to Michael J. Fox on “Spin City,” hold her own on a show in the company of big guys like [Robert] Forster and Bill Duke, the formidable actor-director who plays her boss, Amos. In the two episodes I’ve seen, she’s flirted with Patrick Dempsey (“Once and Again”) and Peter Horton (“Thirtysomething'”) yet managed to maintain her soft-on-the-outside, steel-on-the-inside persona. When still another date (Carlos Ponce), a tad unnerved when he finds out what she does for a living, asks Karen how many men she has killed, she just sighs and asks him to kiss her. “See?” she murmurs, coming out of the clinch. “I’m just a girl.” ...

If you’re looking for the season’s smartest, most comfy and engaging new thriller, “Sisco'” is it.
Yet this series disappeared from the prime-time schedule almost as swiftly as a previous show based on one of Leonard’s novels, the abundantly quirky Maximum Bob (1998). ABC, which had hoped Karen Sisco could take a much larger bite than it did out of the audience for its chief Wednesday-night rival, Law & Order, canceled Gugino’s series in November 2003 after running only seven episodes. Three more installments that had been shot as part of the first-season order weren’t broadcast until Sisco was re-aired on the USA Network during the spring of 2004. Ever since, fans of this show have been waiting for a DVD release, but so far without satisfaction.

Above: The write-up about Karen Sisco from the September 13-19, 2003, Fall Preview edition of TV Guide. (Click to enlarge the image.) Below: The show’s opening title sequence, which employed an edited version of the 1969 Isley Brothers funk anthem, “It’s Your Thing,” as its theme.

(The TV Guide spread about Karen Sisco was provided by Brian Sheridan. It’s part of the collection in the Communication Department at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. It is used with permission.)

REQUIRED READING: In the blog Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot, copywriter-critic Marty McKee has reviewed--individually--all 10 episodes of Karen Sisco. You’ll find that whole set here.


Kiwicraig said...

Another examples of the slave-to-ratings idiocy of many in the TV business. Not much would have beaten Law and Order, but if you'd put it on another night (or if it had been an HBO show etc that wasn't such a slave to ratings), it would have done much better, given its quality.

Still, at least we can watch Gugino in a cool recurring guest spot in Entourage nowadays.

Xavier said...

I remember this show. It was very pleasing viewing - much like its lead actress.

Rural View said...

I thought of these posts when I noticed that this season's new show "Lone Star" was being canceled about the second week it was on. I didn't like it, didn't even get through the first episode, but the powers that be need to give shows a little time before they cancel.