Rizzoli & Isles closed its fifth season in 2014 as the leading scripted drama on basic cable, after appearing consistently in the top five since its premiere episode. The show has achieved this status slowly, after the first season justifiably drew critical brickbats for its weak scripts. Since then, the writing teams have sharpened the ensemble’s repartee and sculpted the central characters, Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) and medical examiner Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), into emotionally complex women.
Both are entering their 40s, oozing professional competence and confidence. The show’s focus on the Rizzoli family-and-friends nexus (cajoled, shepherded, nurtured and, most of all, fed, by Lorraine Bracco as Jane’s mother Angela) has it exploring the usually unattached leads’ experiences not as if they’re waiting for heterosexual coupledom, but as these might be an emerging norm. (The US census indicates that in 2013, more than a quarter of all Americans lived alone). Yet, despite its improved writing and topicality, Rizzoli & Isles lacks a basic ingredient for a weekly crime show: a tantalizing or even interesting mystery as the core of every TV hour. It also lacks, even after 72 episodes, a firm identity: is it comic mystery fluff or a taut cop drama?
Even in the areas of its strength — the give-and-take between strong-minded friends, the camaraderie of colleagues, and the bonds of a multi-generational family — the show tends to probe lightly the critical issues it consistently raises. Season six’s premiere, for example, spirals around Jane’s rookie detective brother, Frankie (Jordan Bridges), stumbling into an officer-involved shooting. The plot plays straight down the line, including the cliché of the deceased’s missing gun and the grim determination of Internal Affairs to prove that Frankie discharged his gun illegally.
This happens as Frankie’s interactions with his sister and others highlight the pain of taking another human being’s life. Frankie spins from defensive to tearful to horrified at his own capacity to kill when he feeling threatened in a crowded subway. He’s young enough to confess to his mother his fear of prison and vulnerable enough to cry in front of his older sister. But when he initiates a conversation about his new self-knowledge, the show too quickly wraps up with a soggy platitude, in this case delivered by the usually acerbic Jane: “That’s how we tell the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys always feel it when something bad happens.”
The season’s second episode looks at another sort of angst. A jobless professor of poetry turned neophyte fisherman scores win after profitable win in high-stakes bass fishing competitions, while the skilled female partner who coaches him and ties his lures finds herself shunned by big-money advertisers and magazines. They can’t wait to endorse and publicize the poet-fisherman with five-figure checks, but the woman powering the wins can’t earn a penny or even much notice from them.
While this episode showcases an apparently ever-trending topic (a woman’s travails in a male-dominated field), the women investigators’ plots are rendered in the mundane manners. Databases and surveillance cameras provide clues. Maura, in the cleanest, shiniest medical examiners’ lab on TV, extracts physiological esoterica to nudge the action forward. Rizzoli’s older partner, Vince Koslak (Bruce McGill), reminds her regularly that if the job were easy, anyone could do it. The guilty always confess at the mere whiff of an interrogation, as if the cases are simply a frame for an old-fashioned family drama with a 21st-century family of blood and choice at its heart. The second episode’s side plot — in which a besotted but charming bass fisherman pursues Jane for a date — generates more tension than the central crime, with the bonus that Harmon can show off her gift for off-the-cuff physical comedy and snarky put-down in every single encounter.
Such deft exchanges generally provide Rizzoli & Isles‘ most effective action. During the final sequences of the premiere episode, the family members gather in Frankie’s new apartment after the resolution of the case. In a few delicately scripted and played interchanges, he gives each person a gift for standing by him — only he is too overcome with emotion to actually finish a single sentence. Not only does the audience see in the choice of gifts his evolving thoughtfulness and maturity, but each individual’s reaction shifts the dynamic of the group. Jane, for example, takes the framed baseball Frankie gives her with the cynical look every older sister has delivered to a younger brother at some time in their lives, only to burst into delighted laughter when she recognizes the prized signature on the ball. If just some of this subtlety could enter the crime-fighting in the show, TNT might find on its hands not only an audience favorite, but also a critical ground-breaker.