Karen Sisco begins with a game. Who is Karen Sisco, her companion wants to know. “Schoolteacher. Social Worker. Lawyer. Art dealer — stolen paintings shipped in from Europe.” Karen (Carla Gugino) smiles. “Want me to tell you?” she coos. “No,” her companion grins. “I want to keep guessing.”
The show wants you to want that too. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 1996 novel, Out of Sight, the series unpeels layers of Karen, a Federal Marshal, assigned to serve warrants, chase fugitives, and “bring in the bad guys.” In the premiere episode, she’s recovering from being shot in the vest during a takedown gone wrong. She sports the resulting chest bruise like a badge — it seems to grow more livid as the episode progresses, serving as a visual metaphor for the difficulty and heartache she endures in her testosterone-drenched world.
Her romance with Carl (Patrick Dempsey) is a useful distraction from her professional woes: the opening sequence cuts between their flirtatious guessing-game and her fractured memory of the shooting. Both situations pose danger, of course. The other men around her serve as pillars of support — her partially retired PI father Marshall Sisco (endearingly played by Robert Forster) and her boss, Amos Andrews (Bill Duke) — or overtly baleful types, most notably, Special Agent Eddie Fuentes (Benito Martinez) or, as it turns out, Carl.
Fuentes openly leers at Karen as he trades on nearly every conceivable female stereotype. Discovering that Carl is a criminal suspect, he practically cackles with glee when he tells Karen: “Of course, I was surprised to discover that a Federal Marshal was sharing her bed with a suspected bank robber.” In his eyes, she’s more guilty for sleeping with Carl than he is for committing robberies.
The moment highlights the contradictory expectations swirling around Karen Sisco: though she claims sexual agency, when she exercises it, she also risks looking like a “conquest.” Hinting at her promiscuity, Fuentes undermines her competence as a Marshal; he pursues this line throughout the episode, asking her to tap her calls with Carl for “intelligence” and using this surveillance as an excuse to “watch” her.
Karen’s emotional life and job collide when she must arrest Carl after a botched robbery attempt that has left his partner dead. Predictably, he tries to persuade her to come away with him on his boat. “To stop me, you’ll have to shoot me, Karen. And you won’t shoot me,” he says, assuming what Fuentes assumes, that her emotional attachments will keep her from doing her job. Of course, he’s wrong. When he goes to start the engines, Karen shoots him in the shoulder. Coolly stepping on board, she gives him a final kiss-off: “I want you to know, Carl, that I had a good time, considering.” Ouch.
She’s a ball-buster, to be sure, but unlike J. Lo’s version of the character in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998), Gugino’s is not all jagged edges and broad sex appeal. The TV series can develop Karen’s complexities, and Gugino brings wit to the role, making the difficulties of being Karen Sisco plausible and sympathetic.
That’s not to say the series’ interest in female “empowerment” doesn’t conflict occasionally with its apparent affection for Gugino’s body-hugging costumes. But if the camera encourages ogling with a breast or booty shot, Karen Sisco is aware enough of the attendant politics. Immediately preceding a steamy sex scene with Carl (close up vanity shots included), the camera pauses on Karen’s keys, left dangling in the lock of her apartment. Most obviously, this suggests Karen’s lust leaves her careless. But thematically, the shot presents a more general caution: sex objects are vulnerable, packing or not.
Combine such multifaceted politics with smart direction (by Jeremy Kagan and Soderbergh himself), hip soundtrack, talented cast, and roster of accomplished producers (some with hands in the big screen version, including Danny DeVito, who also appeared in the second episode), and Karen Sisco is that rare thing, a fresh concept.
As it troubles boundaries of gender, genre, power, and the law, Karen Sisco explores what’s at stake in being female in the contemporary U.S., ass-kicker or no. As Carl puts it upon discovering Karen’s “true” identity: “So much for the schoolteacher.”