The other day, languorously succumbing to a sentimental mood, this TV critic brewed a pot of chamomile tea, fixed up a plate of petit fours, and settled in on his velvet fainting couch to leaf through a cherished scrapbook—disgruntled reader mail. Vivid invective. Wild finger-wagging. One accusation—especially hurtful to a foie gras aficionado—of displaying the sissy sensibilities of a vegan. And here, from the fall of '06, was a juicy one. The e-mail conveyed an unfavorable response to an article that had done some joy-deriding of Brother and Sisters and a few other of simpering yuppie soaps. The readers missive, though smug in its contempt and clammy in its imputation of sinister tastes, nonetheless carried an emotional note worthy of some sympathy:
Admit it. What you really hate about these shows is that the women are alive and well at the beginning of the show and alive and well at the end. These women haven't been gang-raped, shot in the head, dismembered, choked to death, beaten to a pulp, set afire, thrown out a window or died any number of horrible deaths as served up on the endless number of legal and forensics shows on primetime broadcast and cable TV each week.
Of course, I will admit nothing of the sort. What I really hate about Brothers and Sisters is its creators expectation that we are supposed to find Calista Flockhart's nostril-flaring huffiness somehow cute. Nonetheless—and although I would no sooner sermonize about mass-media sadism than I would condemn Hitchcock's Psycho—I can see where my correspondent's heebie-jeebies were coming from. She was writing near the dawn of an age of new gratuitousness—lots of ghastly stuff going down in between car-insurance ads, very much creepy lingering on gorgeous corpses. She detected an "underlying misogyny" in these woman-slashing cop shows, and I wonder what she'd make of Rizzoli & Isles (TNT, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET), a new one based on the cadaverlicious murder mysteries of Tess Gerritsen.
The series' approach to violence against woman is the only complex thing about it. Otherwise, you cannot even call Rizzoli & Isles run of the mill, it being that mills usually run more smoothly. While actress Sasha Alexander does decent work as medical examiner Maura Isles, Angie Harmon—the dialogue-reading supermodel most famous as A.D.A. Abbie Carmichael—is badly miscast as homicide cop Jane Rizzoli. Hard of nose, blunt of tongue, and wooden of characterization, Rizzoli explains in an online bio that she hunts "monsters for a living": "Yeah, I know I'm not supposed to call 'em that, but that's what some of them are."
In the pilot, striding into a crime scene with a swagger and a whaddaya-lookin'-at sneer, Rizzoli walks into a schmantzy residential foyer and says, "We're not in South Boston anymore, Dorothy." You might find this a stale way to underscore Rizzolis working-class roots, but we do indeed need some reminding that we're in Boston. Harmon's accent is always on the go, sometimes a smoky Southern gumbo, sometimes a husky generically urban-ethnic mumble. In any event, Rizzoli headed up the tacky stairwell and over to the show's first corpse—a man who, a grisly prologue implied, had just witnessed the rape of his wife. Certain clues (stun-gun marks, an overturned teacup, a favored make of duct tape for all I know) marked this as the work of The Surgeon, a serial killer who once targeted Rizzoli herself as a victim.
From her perspective, the most unsettling part of this nascent investigation was that The Surgeon was still locked up in a maximum-security facility. Her first move was to visit him there, in a disgracefully derivative scene suggesting that The Surgeon had interned under Hannibal Lecter. In a typically understated moment, he sniffed at the air and identified the detective's scent as "the smell of lavender and fear." Artlessly oozing pervy menace, the character looked like an accidental literalization of the Gothic boogeymen lurking in the subtext of so many crime dramas.
The second most bothersome thing Rizzoli had to face at the crime scene was the handsome stranger nosing around. "What's the FBI doin here?" Rizzoli snorted. Apparently, the girl hasn't watched much television in the last 40 years. As everyone else knows, the most significant post-Hoover reorganization of the Bureau was the formation of a special subdivision exclusively dedicated to meddling in the investigations of other agencies. Within this larger group, there is an elite unit licensed to flirt prolifically with their counterparts in local law enforcement. I give you Special Agent Gabriel Dean, a figure so alluring that he inspired Rizzoli to start wearing lipstick to work.
Thus, the show presented a unique question: What is the appropriate shade of gloss to wear when exacting vengeance on a necrophiliac? Rizzoli & Isles inhabits a curious space. It serves up a lot of the usual rotten eye candy, with lavish shots of female murder victims ranking as its most carefully art-directed moments, and it presents a kind of avenging-savior narrative that's so crude as to border on myth. I should mention that, because The Surgeon's M.O. involves piercing a woman's palms with a scalpel, Rizzoli now wears the scars of their encounter as if they were stigmata. The wounds still ache, which at least gives Harmon something to do with her hands.