TNT obviously isn’t “in trouble.” I know this. I can read the cable ratings. But all the same? TNT is in trouble. “Rizzoli & Isles,” which premieres on Monday (July 12) night marks the cable network’s second consecutive procedural dud to launch in less than a month, following “Memphis Blues.”
“Saving Grace,” fresh off of yet another Emmy nomination for Holly Hunter, is gone for reasons that had nothing to do with ratings. I watched four or five episodes of “Hawthorne” last summer before quitting in pain.
That leaves TNT with “The Closer,” zero shame there, and “Leverage,” which is so light and fun (when I remember to watch) that it probably belongs on USA anyway.
Like I said, I understand that as long as TNT has “The Closer,” powerhouse crime repeats and NBA basketball, the network isn’t really in trouble. But remember that great development streak the network was on a couple years back? Yeah. It may be over.
But I’m here to bury “Rizzoli & Isles” for now. A full review is after the break…
The strong through-line of TNT programming that seemed to be developing a couple years back? It’s lost. Looking at “Memphis Beat” and “Rizzoli & Isles” and trying to see a through-line, this is the best I can come up with: TNT is now the network of regionally specific crime procedurals that render their distinctive locations generic with dull casework and really, really uninteresting characters played by overqualified actors.
That’s not as catchy as “We Know Drama.”
“Rizzoli & Isles” is based on the popular series of crime novels by Tess Gerritsen and stars Angie Harmon as Jane Rizzoli, Boston detective. Rizzoli is a terrific detective, but she has a problem: Her heart rules her head.
How do I know this? Not because she’s particularly emotional about anything happening in the episode. In fact, Harmon has always been a fairly chilly actress.
I know this because the pilot features one of those quintessential TV/movie serial killers (played by the excellent Michael Massee) who like to sniff and psycho-analyse female law enforcement figures. And in one scene, apropos of nothing, he tells Rizzoli, “Your problem is that your heart rules your head.”
Oh. Thanks, Serial Killer/Exposition Man!
This goes back again to what is becoming my major complaint of the weekend — see its previous iterations in my reviews of “Haven” and “The Glades” — if you are a writer and you have to have another character tell the main character (and therefore the audience) what your main character’s fatal flaw is, you probably haven’t done a very good job of writing action for your major character that displays said problem in a way that would make the exposition unnecessary. Or, put the same way your 9th grade teacher tried to say it, “Show me, don’t have a serial killer tell me.”
When TNT initially announced this pilot, it was only called “Rizzoli,” which made sense, since she’s the main character and she comes complete with the hammy Italian mom (Lorraine Bracco), the insecure younger brother (Jordan Bridges), the weak-stomached new partner (Lee Thompson Young) and the crusty, cranky ex-partner (Bruce McGill). But then, perhaps realizing that co-star Sasha Alexander appeared on TV’s most popular drama (“NCIS”) back before it was TV’s most popular drama, they added “Isles” to the title even though, as a character, Isles is still an afterthought.
See, if Rizzoli’s problem is that her heart rules her head, Isles’ problem is that she’s all head, no heart. Isles, a medical examiner, understands the dead better than she understands the living. [I know this because somebody tells her that she understands the dead better than she understands the living in the second episode. Like I said, this isn’t an especially well-written series.] Isles, who also relishes her ability to speak for the dead, is an attractive encyclopedia of facts and figures, but she isn’t always that graceful when it comes to social niceties.
In short, Isles is pretty shamelessly a top-to-bottom, from the dialogue to Alexander’s interpretation of the character, carbon copy of Emily Deschanel’s Temperance Brennan from “Bones.” At least “Rizzoli & Isles” comes by the theft somewhat honestly, since series developer Janet Tamaro has “Bones” listed prominently on her resume.
But “Rizzoli & Isles” isn’t an all-female version of “Bones,” with Rizzoli standing in for David Boreanaz’s Booth. And it isn’t really the series that TNT is selling it as. The ads have been all about not-so-quippy one-liners, a cute barking dog and not-so-hilarious banter between Rizzoli and Isles. I’m looking at a poster image of the two women hanging in a morgue looking flirty and fun. That’s not “Rizzoli & Isles.”
Instead, both of the two episodes I’ve seen begin with really intense, really unpleasant scenes of violence towards vulnerable women, totally “Criminal Minds” stuff. And then each episode has done a hard cut into Rizzoli playing sports — basketball with her brother in the pilot, softball with colleagues in the second episode — lest we ever forget both that she’s a tomboy and also that she’s a woman in a man’s world. Both episodes also focus on serial killers (not really a sustainable narrative choice) and, from what I can tell, they condense the plots of whole books into 44 minutes that unavoidably feel rushed and underdeveloped.
So “Rizzoli & Isles” is darker than you think it is. The crime-driven material is familiar and, because of the book condensing, hurried and mystery-free, while at least in the early going, attempts at levity aren’t working at all. The pilot really can’t make up its mind on what kind of relationship Rizzoli and Isles have and, as a result, the actresses can’t find any sort of rapport. Are they supposed to be colleagues on the verge of a classic buddy-friendship? Are they already close friends only hampered by Rizzoli’s heart and Isles’ brains? And in the second episode, they only occasionally share scenes, so there’s a lack of back-and-forth. Humor in the first episode mostly comes from Bracco’s shrieking caricature of a mother, though she’s also downplayed in the second episode.
I’ve never thought Harmon was a bad actress, but she’s also not a varied actress, so she’s basically doing her “Law & Order” and “Women’s Murder Club” thing, which again gets in the way of any specificity to this character. There are random pieces of business thrown out there for Harmon that amount to nothing. Like she breaks her nose at the start of the pilot, but the injury has no visible effect or payoff. The first episode introduces stigma-like wounds inflicted by a perp, but it doesn’t look like we’ll hear about them ever again. In the first episode she attempts a Boston accent once every two or three scenes, dropping her r’s at arbitrary points, almost as an experiment. I may be wrong, but I think that by the second episode, she’s decided not to bother with an accent, a choice also wisely made by Alexander.
McGill, never an actor to shy from going broad, has embraced the accent and he does it solidly. Nobody else seems to be trying. That’s completely OK, by the way. Not everybody in a Boston-based movie or TV show has to pretend to be an extra from “Good Will Hunting.” The accents neither inherently add to, nor take away from, a sense of place. Unfortunately, accents or no, “Rizzoli & Isles” gets very little Boston flavor and when an real Boston-ite like Donnie Wahlberg pops up in the second episode, his authenticity is jarring.
“Rizzoli & Isles” is well-populated with actors I like quite a bit, from McGill to Wahlberg to Massee to Billy Burke to Brian Dennehy. There are so many good actors on the periphery that I could really grow to like “Rizzoli & Isles” if not for Rizzoli and Isles. And that’s not the M.O. for a cable network that has built shows around strong women like Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter and then let appealing ensembles grow around them. With “Rizzoli & Isles,” it’s like the network is hoping that the hole at the center of this investigative donut will magically fill itself in, making for a tasty Boston Kreme. So far, there’s no indication that that’s going to happen and even less indication that I’m going to stick around to see if it improves.
“Rizzoli & Isles” premieres on Monday, July 12 at 10 p.m. on TNT.