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Jill Hennessy, Crossing Jordan
Credit: Crossing Jordan: Paul Drinkwater

Watching Jill Hennessy in Crossing Jordan, you’re struck by how hard her character has to work — how joylessly difficult her life is. Compare her with her male TV equivalents: William Petersen’s Gil Grissom on ”CSI” peers through microscopes with a Zenlike serenity. But Hennessy’s medical examiner Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh blows so many fuses she has to take anger-management classes. Professional women, it’s clear, have a tougher challenge being prime-time heroes than their male counterparts.

Hennessy, formerly required to do little more than nod and cite recondite case law with Sam Waterston on ”Law & Order,” has a more flamboyant role now: Her Jordan is a workaholic rule buster, fired from a number of previous jobs for being too headstrong. She gives her new boss, played with amusing asperity by Miguel Ferrer, plenty of reasons to swig pink stomach-upset medicine, what with her damn-the-rules approach to crime solving; he calls her an ”obnoxious, driven, self-righteous zealot.”

We know Jordan is a rebel because her hair is a wildly tousled mane, and she wears funky jeans to work. Raised by her father, a retired homicide cop played by ”The White Shadow”’s Ken Howard (her mother was murdered when she was a child), Jordan has a playfully morbid method of solving crimes with her dad: She tells him the details of a case, then they choose sides. ”Who do you want to be, victim or killer?” Jordan asks. ”I’ll be the victim,” she adds, just a squinch too eagerly. This is a way to dramatize the ratiocination it takes to crack a case — we see their speculations in fuzzily shot reenactments of the crime. I found the way father and daughter relish their let’s-play-murder roles both creepy and endearing, but wasn’t sure if viewers would cotton to it.

So far, Jordan is beating its grating, talky female-hero competition, CBS’ ”Family Law,” in the ratings. Why? My theory is that the producers of ”Jordan” have calibrated their show to appeal to people who enjoy popular literary detectives like Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. The show’s plots — standard suspense fare so far — are warm comfort food for mystery buffs.

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