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,” which was brought to life from the fiction of thriller writer Elmore Leonard. Lopez was very good, but a bit too steamy to get on 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”).
Karen’s father, a semiretired private eye with the only slightly confusing name Marshall, is played by Robert Forster, who, as he proved in Quentin Tarantino’s ”Jackie Brown,” has moved into late middle age with irresistible wryness and macho charm. He doles out advice to his daughter while solving his own cases and keeping his twinkly eyes peeled for the right guy for his little girl. Although he’d like her to settle down, you also know he’s darn proud that Karen can blow a hole in the middle of an evildoer without wobbling on her high heels.
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 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.”
Girls, in Elmore Leonard’s fiction, tend to be tough women. An early novel like ”The Switch” (1978), for example, features a housewife who is abducted and held for ransom. But she ends up working with her kidnappers, because her husband is such a cruel little weasel. It’s this same sense of shifting loyalties and morality that gives ”Karen Sisco” a novel charge of energy. Even when Karen is pretty sure Dempsey’s character is knocking off banks, she says, ”I like him a lot.” At the same time, she sets limits: Yes, she fooled around with Horton’s cop — a married man — but when she has decided he’s not going to leave his wife, she drops the guy. He’s shown himself to be a creep, and his curdled smile — that hapless grin Horton has saved from his days as doofy Gary on ”thirtysomething” — only gives his sad game away.
Writers Bob Brush and Jason Smilovic, who along with Danny DeVito are a couple of Sisco’s numerous executive producers, have a good handle on Leonard’s off-kilter view of the human condition, his avoidance of the easy wisecrack, and the quiet effectiveness of playing with time. Both editions of the show I’ve seen switch back and forth over three-day periods in Sisco’s investigations, and part of the fun is putting together the puzzle of what fact Karen knows when. The series also has a great ear for background music: Leonard Cohen, Marvin Gaye, and Sly Stone’s version of the Doris Day hit ”Que Sera, Sera” add a lot to the mood of soulful romanticism that typifies Sisco’s life when she’s not ducking gunfire or jousting with FBI bureaucrats trying to muscle in on her cases.
”Karen Sisco” faces a tough time period, up against ”Law & Order” as well as the new David E. Kelley effort, ”The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire.” (The show would have been a much better fit on Sunday nights, as a lead-in to ”Alias.” Think of the promos: ”Garner and Gugino — It’s Action-Babe Sunday!”) Any Kelley show, especially one daring enough to feature fine middle-aged actors, is bound to set some aging television critics’ hearts aflutter. And no one expects Sisco to take down ”Law & Order.” But never underestimate what I said at the start about the virtues of old-fashioned entertainment: If you’re looking for the season’s smartest, most comfy and engaging new thriller, ”Sisco” is it.