Watching Jill Hennessy in Crossing Jordan and Kim Delaney in Philly, you’re struck by how hard their characters have to work — how joylessly difficult their lives are. Compare them with their male TV equivalents: William Petersen’s Gil Grissom on CSI peers through microscopes with a Zenlike serenity, and Dylan McDermott’s Bobby Donnell barely acknowledges that he has a newborn baby at home in The Practice. But Hennessy’s medical examiner Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh blows so many fuses she has to take anger-management classes, while Delaney’s Philadelphia defense attorney Kathleen Maguire is run ragged chasing cases while also working out child-custody arrangements with her bristlingly hostile ex-husband (Homicide’s Kyle Secor). 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.

Philly, on the other hand, is like biting into a cold, stale version of the city’s famous cheese steak — it gives you a lot to chew on, but it’s pretty greasy, gummy fare. Delaney, out of her NYPD Blue slacks, has been dolled up: She invariably wears short skirts, the better for sleazeball colleagues like Assistant DA Terry Loomis (The $treet’s Rick Hoffman) to look up them and make lewd comments. Another of the show’s stars, Kathleen’s colleague Will Froman (Tom Everett Scott, also right off The $treet), boffs a comely prosecuting attorney in a courthouse to win a favorable verdict. Two episodes later, he makes a point of telling a new client who’s a stripper, ”I’ve seen you dance.” Eewwww: Boys in Philly are yucky.

Since the big gun behind Philly is producer Steven Bochco, we’re supposed to interpret such stuff — along with partially bared breasts and anatomical insult words that only a big gun gets away with on network prime time — as gutsy realism, instead of what it really is: tedious nastiness. It’s too bad, because Delaney herself is good at expressing both quick-witted courtroom savvy and openhearted vulnerability. The series also has a good supporting character in a sour-faced, vengeful judge played by Robert Harper.

But ultimately, there’s a punishing quality to Philly and Crossing Jordan. It’s as if their women are made to suffer for their aggressiveness — their independence. Set up as saviors, they play out as losers: Jordan sleeps on her father’s living-room sofa because she’s got nowhere else to go. Philly’s Kathleen cries herself to sleep on her son’s bed, hugging his teddy bear as the episode fades to black. And we tiptoe out of these rooms, grateful to escape.

Crossing Jordan: C+ Philly: C

Crossing Jordan
  • TV Show