Is a really good hot dog better than a mediocre steak? That’s the problem at the heart of reviewing. To some degree you have to judge a television series or film on its own merits. Criticizing “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” for all the things that “The Wire” does better is really missing the point of the former and trivializing the latter. But take that hair splitting too far and you end up in the car commercial zone, the one in which every single automobile manufactured each year manages to win a “best in class” trophy. Of course, it’s not a problem with truly great and truly bad shows. “Battlestar Galactica” is unqualified awesome. “According to Jim” is unqualified shit. It’s the morass in the middle where it gets tricky, where you find yourself saying “well it’s not a great show, but it’s a decent procedural/sitcom/snuff film.” And that’s the hill on which “Rizzoli and Isles” stakes its flag.
The procedural has two basic formulas: team and odd-couple. In the former, there’s a team of FBI agents, police officers, crime scene scientists, and wacky hackers who are all wunderkinds and have their own very special roles to play, even if it only involves sunglasses and speech disabilities. In the odd-couple formula, the story centers more closely on a pair of partners, usually one is the tough cop and the other is the geeky scientist. Shows like “CSI,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Without a Trace” tend towards the first formula, while “Rizzoli and Isles” aims at the second formula. Some shows straddle the line by having a strong team element that surrounds an odd couple, like “Bones.” Oddly, the granddaddy of procedurals, “Law & Order,” doesn’t really fit into the two formulas at all, which might have something to do with the actual quality it managed for all those years.
“Rizzoli and Isles” sets up Angie Harmon (of “Law & Order” and “Jason Sehorn Proposed to me on Leno” fame) as Jane Rizzoli, a tough, working class Boston homicide detective, and Sasha Alexander (of “NCIS” fame where she played “right-between-the-eyes-Kate”) as Maura Isles, a medical examiner from an upper crust upbringing. Somebody dies before the credits every episode and then those crazy kids get to work solving the crime.
The show tries to play up its Boston setting for flavor, but since essentially everything I know about Boston comes from movies or history books, I have no idea if there’s any level of accuracy to it. And I’m not sure if wondering why a show about working class Bostonians only has one guy talking like Good Will Hunting makes me grossly ignorant, the show grossly inaccurate, or a combination thereof. All I know for sure is that clearly there’s something about the city that apparently attracts former “Law & Order” assistant DAs.
The show’s best episodes are the ones tied most closely to the book series upon which it is based. Those feature a serial killer named Hoyt who was kicked out of medical school for being mean to the corpses, and who has taken a special interest in Rizzoli. She bears scars on both palms where he pinned her hands with scalpels, and Michael Massee plays the role with terrific creepiness. The murder-of-the-week episodes that make up the bulk of the series are perfectly serviceable procedurals, with the right balance of who-dunnitness and good character interaction. Alexander and Harmon have a natural camaraderie that buoys the show, and their supporting cast holds their own. Harmon in particular does a great job actually managing to convey the tough tomboy character despite the suspension of disbelief required by the simple fact that she looks like Angie Harmon. Chazz Palminteri is inexplicably on the show as Rizzoli’s father, and he seems to be channeling Christopher Walken’s corpse for the role.
It’s got the usual new show pile of things that just don’t quite work that will probably get ironed out. Isles in particular has the irritating tendency to speak in overly technical terms, but the way it’s written doesn’t come across as endearing and cluelessly socially awkward. No matter how socially awkward people are, they don’t unironically say that someone stretched [the technical names for facial muscles] instead of the word “smile.”
I classify television shows (at least the ones good enough to watch) on three levels. There is the appointment level, where you watch that damned show the instant it’s available. There is the regular level, in which you watch every episode in order, and pause it when you go to the other room for a minute, but it’s not so good that you don’t end up watching three or four episodes at a time as they build up in a queue. Then there’s the lowest level, which means you put it on for background noise while you’re making dinner. It’s better than nothing, entertaining in its own right, but you don’t feel as if you’re missing anything if you take the garbage out mid-scene, or even lose an occasional episode as it expires on Hulu. “Rizzoli and Isles” is firmly in that last category.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.