Within a minute of her first appearance on screen, Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) has a broken nose. A Boston homicide detective, she’s not unused to violence, but this time she’s not fighting with killers or even contending with her mostly male colleagues. The nose is the result of a driveway basketball game with her brother Frankie (Jordan Bridges), the same sort of roughhousing her mom (Lorraine Bracco) has long warned against. And wouldn’t you know, within 1o seconds of their effort to stop the bleeding with one of their mother’s bright white towels, she’s appeared in the kitchen doorway, delivering her judgment: “You always manage to turn Sunday dinner in to a circus every week.”
Yes, Rizzoli & Isles is quick with clichés. Janey’s a longtime tomboy, mom disapproves (and worries shell never find a man), her brother’s competitive, and her job is demanding. As soon as this family moment starts, it’s over, as Jane’s boss calls her out to a crime scene. She takes an ice bag with her (“You won’t be attractive if your nose swells up,” advises mom) and as she drives away from her parents’ suburban home, you see dad’s plumbing van parked outside, marked “Rizzoli & Son.” She’s working class too.
For all the stereotyping, it’s hard to be mad at Angie Harmon. Partly it’s the voice, a scratchy mix of wily-and-wild. More subtly, it’s the way she presents her many angles, meaning her long limbs and her emotional layers. You don’t even have to sympathize with these layers, say, Abbie Carmichael’s abiding faith in capital punishment or Harmon’s own publicly proclaimed faith in Sarah Palin. Her layers seem lived in, like she wrestles and kind of enjoys them too, like she’s trying hard not to be bored even when she’s been handed yet another unoriginal part.
In fact, Jane is Harmon’s second go at a detective-based-a-crime-novel-series, following the short-lived Women’s Murder Club. Like that show’s Lindsey Boxer, Jane is smart and tough, and allied with a girlier girl, here coroner Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander). In addition to being fashion-conscious and neurotically bright (she tends to diagnose her dates, scaring them off), Maura is Jane’s “best friend.” They share secrets, discuss eligible men, and generally outperform the men they work with — not that they’re competing. They’re best friends and opposites: at the department softball game, Jane wears shorts and a ponytail, Maura a sleek bodysuit with a hairdo-preserving hood. And they multitask in harmony: at the first crime scene, featuring a dead man and a missing wife, Maura straightens Jane’s hairline-fractured nose, offers motherly advice (“Put some ice on it for the next 24 hours so you don’t look like Mike Tyson”), and oh yes, corroborates Jane’s first, right guess as to the meaning of the crime scene: the killer is copying another they know very well, one who kidnapped Jane years ago.
The personal connection to this first plot now in place, the episode goes on to reveal Jane’s trauma via some predictably timed flashbacks: Hoyt (Michael Massee) ties her up and tortures her, piercing her palms, stigmata-like; he shuffles and looms over her. Trite as her terror is made in these urky flashbacks, in present-day, Jane is (thank goodness) rather no-nonsense. When she visits Hoyt in prison, he harangues her Hannibal Lecter-style: she gives him what she must (a look at her scarred hands, a chance to comment on her breasts) to gain information, while her rookie partner, a kid named Frost (Lee Thompson Young) intervenes on cue (“That’s enough!”). (This righteous aggression doesn’t quite make up for he poor kid’s tendency to puke whenever he sees a dead body, a tic for which the other guys — but not Jane — rib him mercilessly.)
Jane’s decency and pragmatism are functions of Harmon’s performance. Even when she makes obviously foolish choices, placing herself at risk, the result is not her abjection or need of rescue, but something less dire: she embarrasses herself in front of the FBI guy, Dean (Billy Burke, temporarily escaped from Forks) she wants to impress. Her desire is part predictable turf anxiety (“You fed boys, you like to show up take the bat and the ball”) and also part personal as she and Maura both think Dean’s date material, though, refreshingly, they’re more inclined to talk about it than compete. And Jane’s groundedness serves everyone well, including Maura, called on more than once to utter expository dialogue: “You are deceptively complex,” she complains, “I do not understand you.” Jane has the right answer: “You would if I were a dead body.”
As the show’s title indicates, the girls’ relationship provides an emotional and indirectly political focus, in their commentary on masculine prerogatives and systems. (One killer is ex-military, inspiring Jane to sigh, “We train our best men to be killers and then are surprised when they are.”) The friendship also offers a welcome respite from and filter for the murder cases, which are hardly groundbreaking, at least in the first two episodes. At least the recurring nightmare killer is dispatched early. The second, a seeming return of the Boston Strangler, starts out as a slight homage to the series’ location, but then turns around to offer precious little insight into the serial killer, the city, or the history: a couple of news clips on a laptop show Albert DeSalvo’s perp walk, but no one even mentions the more important stories, concerning media exploitation, local outrage, and cops’ frustrations — and most of all, how all of these exacerbated women’s fears. If we’re going to have another cop show, and one that’s interested in brutal killers and forensics to boot, we might at least hope that the women at its center reshape the assumptions… and the clichés.