(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff views Rizzoli & Isles. Next week: America's Got Talent!)
Last summer, I gave Rizzoli & Isles a D+ for the first couple of episodes, watched a few more to confirm I wasn’t fond of it, then forgot all about it. But while looking into the show for its inclusion on last year’s “Worst of TV” list, I discovered something that shocked me: The show was the number one most-viewed drama on cable last year! I knew it had done well enough to get renewed, but I attributed that almost entirely to the fact that it aired after The Closer, which has always been a highly rated show. I figured there was some sort of “rising tide lifts all boats” effect going on, and if Rizzoli & Isles ever went off on its own, it would be doomed to a quick failure. But no. The show was a pretty huge hit, pulling in over 7 million viewers some weeks, which is big for a network like TNT. (It’s also a much better viewership number than roughly two-thirds of the shows on the major broadcast networks.)
But why? (Given some of the comments in last week's Tosh.0 review, many of you have the same question.)
That’s the thing. I can usually figure out what about hit shows appeals to the people who love them. I don’t think NCIS is very good, but I get why millions upon millions do. And even though The Closer was never my bag, I got why it became the “number one drama in the history of cable television” (has TNT retired that promotional line yet?). But Rizzoli & Isles seemed so damn bland and uninteresting to me, and bland and uninteresting crime procedurals rarely attract audiences this big. (Just ask ABC and NBC, which kept trying to copy the surface of CBS procedurals without figuring out what was at the core that viewers responded to and kept failing.) Clearly, I had missed something the first time around.
It’s here that I’ll pause to admit that the very idea of “trying to figure out why someone likes a show when you don’t” is a touch condescending, like you have to “lower” yourself to their level. And I know no one will believe me, but I’m really not trying to do that. I have a weird thing in my brain where I assume that when a whole bunch of people really like something that I don’t, I must be wrong. (This gets even more pronounced when we deal with subsets closer to my own demographic, like 18-34 year old males or pet owners or TV critics.) I’ve watched season after season of shows—Desperate Housewives, The O.C., Damages—I didn’t really “get” or care for, simply because lots of other people insisted they were awesome. So when Rizzoli & Isles was a big hit and when it started trending on Twitter during its premiere and when some of you stuck up for the show in those “worst of” comments and when critics gave it good, if not great, reviews last season, well, I assumed I had missed something.
And, no, I don’t like Rizzoli & Isles suddenly. I can at least say that I no longer find it abhorrent, however. It’s just a mild mediocrity, on a network that seems to specialize in such things all too often. (Let’s take the mandatory moment to implore TNT to pick up Men Of A Certain Age for a third season.) If we’re talking about TNT shows that REALLY irritate me now, we have to look at things like Franklin & Bash or Memphis Beat. This? This is just a bland cop show that seems to have attracted a massive fan base for reasons that exist almost entirely outside of itself. In fact, let’s pick apart two of those reasons right now.
1.) Rizzoli & Isles is based on a series of popular novels by Tess Gerritsen. Granted, I’ve never read anything by Gerritsen, but she’s a popular novelist, and people who love these long-running mystery series often have an intense passion for them that I might bring to something like Breaking Bad or Community. (And, honestly, in the world of pop culture, they’d probably get more respect than I would, ultimately. Book nerds still outrank TV nerds, right?) And when mystery novelists turn to TV, they often bring their fanbases with them. Granted, those fanbases are too small for the broadcast networks—as the James Patterson inspired Women’s Murder Club found out—but they’re just right for cable, and it’s hard not to imagine that someone at some network is attempting to track down Daniel Baldacci right now.
2.) Rizzoli & Isles stars Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. I’ll get to why I think this has benefited the show in a bit, but it’s worth it to remember that Harmon and Alexander carry with them lots of goodwill from their days on Law & Order and NCIS. (Harmon, in particular, will be of interest to the TNT audience, since the network is still the home of constant L&O reruns.) This is one of those things I always forget, since I don’t find the art of acting particularly interesting, but people really fucking love actors. And when actors they love get roles that they enjoy watching said actors perform in, well, all the better. I don’t get actor obsession—which is different from saying I think it’s stupid, mind—so I didn’t really consider this until much later on.
But even with those two things, I guess I’d say that the show would only be guaranteed a big sample—which it got last year when the pilot debuted. To keep those viewers coming back, as Rizzoli & Isles did week after week last season, the show would have to be pinging everybody’s buttons in a certain way. And that means that Gerritsen fans, Closer fans, Harmon fans, Alexander fans, and just plain old TV watchers had to all come together in some sort of conglomeration that led to them becoming Rizzoli & Isles fans. And after watching the first two episodes of this new season (though we’ll mainly focus on the premiere here), I think I get it.
TNT’s been pimping the show as a “womance” (which is an awful word that must be killed immediately), and that’s not really far off the mark. I joked some last year about how the show often seemed to be pushing the idea of the title characters as lesbians, but not really, and the show is now all but cheekily acknowledging this. (One of the early scenes in tonight’s episode features Isles telling Rizzoli how hot she looks.) Now, there are plenty of shows where the writers offer up scenes like this that don’t play as borderline romances, but Rizzoli & Isles does because Harmon and Alexander have absolutely fantastic chemistry. Every scene between the two crackles, and it crackles with that borderline romantic tension. The show writes to this and the network promotes it because it’s by far the best thing the show has going for it, and in the scenes that had nothing to do with crime-solving and were just about Rizzoli and Isles futzing around and doing weird shit together, I found myself rather enjoying the show.
The problem, then, is that Rizzoli & Isles isn’t the female Men Of A Certain Age, a show about two women out having low-key adventures and trying to negotiate the troubled world of dating or having to live with a stereotypical brassy mother (Lorraine Bracco, still utterly wasted and starting to realize it). It’s a cop show, and when the mystery solving kicks in—as it does tonight when the two have to solve the car bomb murder of a young military woman who’s just returned from overseas—it’s completely and utterly safe and predictable. There’s a scene late in the episode where Rizzoli’s over at the house of the guy the young woman was briefly in love with (their time in combat killed their relationship), and you’ve probably already figured out that he did it and you know Rizzoli knows this and you know that Isles will call in and confirm it and you know that Rizzoli’s love interest will save the day. And everything outlined above happens. There’s no spark to it. No life. When the crime-solving scenes roll around, whatever fun that comes from having Harmon and Alexander play around goes out the window.
Now, lifeless crime solving isn’t necessarily the death of a show. If you infuse the predictable plot points with a sense of fun and spark, you can come up with something that dances around the predictability and acknowledges that, sure, you’re watching something you’ve seen a million times before, but isn’t it fun to watch it play out with these characters? Predictability and unoriginality in plotting, in and of themselves, don’t have to be the death knell of a TV series. To cite one of many examples, Moonlighting was a show that didn’t really offer any new spins on private eye stories but certainly offered new spins on the characters involved in them and on the way those stories were told. Most people don’t watch TV for whipsmart plotting or brand new methods of telling stories; they watch TV to hang out with characters they love, week after week.
My problem, at least with the modern detective show, comes when the need by networks to have every single show fit a similar cookie cutter mold gets in the way of the fun the show could be if it really did focus on the characters. (Just look at how Terriers overcame occasionally predictable cases of the week by infusing every moment of that show with the scruffy, low-fi vibe of its two leads.) The stuff with the title characters sparkles when it doesn’t have to bump up against solving crimes. But every time the show turns to having them look into the latest murder they’re investigating, the air slowly deflates from what’s going on around them. Watching Rizzoli and Isles bicker while taking dueling mud baths, as they do next week? That’s a show that could become sort of infectiously enjoyable. Watching the two of them plod along the latest step in the crime procedural Stations of the Cross? That’s a show that fits too readily into the “We know drama” mold and in a way that suggests the writers struggle against the constraints of the formula they’ve had thrust upon them. At least if the two leads really were lesbians—as pandering as that could be—the show wouldn’t be able to constantly ignore its chief asset in favor of by-the-numbers plotting. The relationship between the two would become the show, in a way that needs to happen if it ever wants to be any better. The show wants to be this—as evidenced by the way that it focused on Rizzoli’s distress over recovering from a gunshot and the occasional glimpses into the two women’s love lives—but it’s like it can’t find a way to ditch the training wheels.
Obviously, it’s good to like different things. For me, I can’t get excited about shows like this anymore, not when there are lots of other shows pushing the boundaries of the medium (and other shows that do a much better job of being comfort food). But for plenty of people out there, there’s something nice about kicking back on a Monday night with TV people who feel like friends and savoring a few moments when the two crack wise and goof around, even as you know they’ll bring the bad guys to justice. Rizzoli & Isles isn’t as bad as it was last year, and if you really like it, I’m not going to roll my eyes or anything. But it’s still a show so generic that the opening line of the premiere is an announcer saying, "And it's the annual Boston Police Department salute to heroes tonight!" If you like Rizzoli & Isles, cool. It can be a fun show. It’s just not my kind of show. And that makes all the difference.