Lauded for her subtle but compelling work as A.D.A. Claire Kincaid on the original Law & Order series, news that Jill Hennessy would headline a new crime drama for NBC in 2001 would have caused quite a buzz. After toiling away in obscurity following Law & Order, it seemed she would finally get an opportunity to flex her acting muscles.
The first season of Crossing Jordan, Tim Kring’s crime melodrama, afforded no such opportunity. The first 23 episodes of this show, which made a surprising six-year run, are anything but subtle or compelling. Struggling to find its identity, this early incarnation is an uneasy balance of crime-lab inanity, procedural, and sitcom.
The pilot episode introduces us to Jordan Cavanaugh (Hennessy), a forensic pathologist who has lost her job in the Boston medical examiner’s office. Feisty and uncompromising, Jordan’s frequent encroachment on police investigations got her expelled from the autopsy table and into court-ordered anger management training in L.A. When an old friend, Dr. Garret Macy (Miguel Ferrer), offers her a chance at redemption, she jumps right back in to her old job — and old crime-solving habits.
Right away, the pilot introduces a host of glaring issues. First, as far as title characters go, Jordan is too transparent to hold our attention for more than a few episodes. Like countless other television heroines, she is rough around just the right edges — temperamental, crass, driven, sexy, and self-righteous. The problem is, she comes off as a list of adjectives pitched to a Hollywood executive rather than a believable character worth spending time with. Her abrasiveness is so calculated that it nullifies any chance of unpredictable behavior, a quality which could have, at the very least, made her alluring.
Even the show’s attempts to add depth to her characterization go no more than surface-deep. We learn early on that her mother’s unsolved murder is the impetus for her career passion and that her father (Ken Howard) was a Boston police detective who used to bring his work home—literally. He and Jordan used to engage in role-playing to solve grizzly homicides when she was only 12-years-old. This revelation is supposed to be an endearing facet of their father-daughter relationship but is instead disturbing on a number of easily surmised levels.
Furthermore, the re-enactments of the crimes are so haphazard, all blurred motion and voice-over narration, it makes us wish they didn’t even bother. At times, we get the impression that the show’s creators began to regret the device, as well. The re-enactments seem to get increasingly shorter as the season goes along, with Jordan only appearing in some of them, as though the writers could not figure out how to navigate their own clumsy device.
The show dedicates a significant amount of energy to light humor that is supposed to make us comfortable rather than laugh, and to that end it succeeds. Jordan and her teammates, Drs. Trey Sanders (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Bug (Ravi Kapoor), and Nigel Townsend (Steve Valentine) spend much of their time attempting gallows humor, trading dull quips, and aggressively flirting. None of the actors are skilled enough to elevate this material to a level of more than passing engagement, and so these scenes drift on by without making much of an impression. Like the characters themselves, really. There is also a half-hearted subplot involving Macy and his assistant Lily Lebowski (Kathryn Hahn) that is simply distracting.
The show does forecast signs of improvement, beginning with the introduction of Detective Woody Hoyt (Jerry O’Connell) in the episode “Wrong Place, Wrong Time”. Hoyt is fairly clueless, even for a television cop, but O’Connell plays him with an affable harmlessness that makes him the most outright likeable character on the show. When he has self-conscious, flirtatious exchanges with Hennessy’s Jordan, they are convincingly awkward; many of the strained looks and stammered lines from the other actors feel stagy.
Hennessy, too, steps up her game by toning it down as the season winds to a close. Her best works comes in the two-part finale “Secrets & Lies”, in which the deaths of two mental patients lead her to the shocking discovery that her own mother suffered from mental illness, a fact which her father never disclosed. She gets several emotionally charged scenes that allow her to strut her stuff, but ironically the scenes where she doesn’t have to do much are more revealing than the explicit ones. She effectively lulls us into her world of sleep-deprivation and loneliness so that her emotional eruptions hold more resonance. The excellent scene she shares with Ken Howard that builds to a shocking slap (I bet you can guess who slaps who) is a strong example.
Even so, the relatively strong season finale is too little, too late, exposing in stark contrast the weakness of the other episodes.
The special features include deleted scenes and commentary from the show’s creators. The real highlight of the set is Jill Hennessy’s conversation with Allan Arkush, one of the producers and directors of the show, about her character’s development over the course of the first season and what it was like working with the other actors. Hennessy is so gracious and charming — everything Jordan is not — during the segment that it only deepens the tragedy of the show’s first season: The Crossing Jordan team clearly meant well, but somehow their intentions fail to translate onscreen.