matt haviland is on the case …
Since its premiere in 2010, Rizzoli & Isles has been adored by fans and misunderstood by critics. Maybe not misunderstood, but shrugged off as another solve-by-numbers crime drama. One that happens to play up the winks and nudges between its titular (and I mean titular) female leads. Throw in references to current events, and bam! Television comfort food. But there’s an art to serving burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Where the stockrooms of most televised burger joints go stale and rotten by the fourth year, Rizzoli & Isles smells fresher than ever before. And with new character dynamics sharing the plate with beefy subplots (which promise to take one whole summer to digest), this is like revisiting your most cherished Boston pub after several years. There’s been a change in management, but your favorite dish is right there on the menu. “Why not?” you say. “I’ll take Rizzoli & Isles.” An hour later, you rub your tummy and sigh. “Well, I wouldn’t mind having that fifteen times in a row.”
The episode begins with sweeping shots of Boston, and gloved hands silencing a sniper rifle. The bullet is destined for Erica Humphrey Miller, newly-elected state senator of Massachusetts. Rizzoli and Isles show up in time to witness the waving Humphrey Miller shot down in her convertible. We gather that Rizzoli & Isles will have to deal with echoes of “too soon” this summer (despite this episode’s plot, and presumably others, being unrelated to the bombings). But it’s a toughie. The bullet finds purchase in her skull, causing an after-image resembling not one but two American tragedies–the first because it happened so recently, the second having lost its sting due to fifty years and countless cinematic nods.
Luckily for the show, these connotations are shaken almost immediately. This is a plot-heavy episode, and the plotlines are centered around our heroes rather than their quest for the killer. In fact, the murder only peeks through more interesting questions, like how cynical Maura Isles has become since secretly donating her kidney last season, and how maternal Jane Rizzoli can be when she’s forced to play the concerned friend. These pallet swaps complement each other perfectly, and give new life to each woman’s performance. These characters might actually work better with a pinch of one another’s temperament. They feel more fully rounded this season … dare I say it, more HBO.
Before any shots ring out, Maura Isles takes a breather (from jogging — they do that a lot, now) to show off her cynical new self. She fumes about her mother, her kidney, and the half-sister she gave it to. Rizzoli (who’s apparently continued her duties as Wellness Captain Exercise Sargent) tries to soothe her friend before bending over to say, “Why are you still such a whiny pain in the ass?” This is only partially true. One can’t describe the new Isles as whiny, but scowly. She scowls throughout the episode. Even her previous holistic leanings (complete with a serene expression of “Why don’t you just let that stress dissolve…”) have been replaced by Tony Robbins-brand dramatic changes in physiology. Which means that her new expression is a smile through grit teeth–biting down on a pencil that’s supposed to trick her body into thinking she’s happy, or hanging upside down from a gravity inverter to “equalize cerebral fluid and ease the strain on the vertebrae.”
Her new attitude gives Isles the chance to play Zooey Deschanel. Quirky, funny, frustrated. During the kidney stakeout she performs with Rizzoli (outside her half-sister Kaylyn’s college cafe), Isles makes an impressive two kidney jokes in a row: “That is not a very respectful way to treat someone else’s kidney,” she says, looking through binoculars at Kaylyn’s third pump of triple-shot-espresso caramel topping. When Rizzoli mentions that Isles is spying on her, she says, “I am spying on my kidney–that is very different.” These jokes don’t play as well on the page, but I for one welcome our new kidney overlords. In other words, this is such a bizarre motif for so many jokes that their very existence makes each one funnier than the last.
That’s true of the show in general. Rizzoli & Isles’s writers are not the poetic souls at AMC. There are lots of clever quips that recall generic crime-solving shows. But what separates Jane Rizzoli from Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan is that she augments the one-liners with a fairly stunning range of vocal delivery and physical acting chops. When the detectives interrogate a Zuckerberg-esque nerd who runs a hate website targeting Mrs. Humphrey Miller, they uncover a rifle he gutted to play video games (“The plastic ones that come with the game suck”). When Rizzoli, who’s spends much of the episode in sexy-mama mode, utters the phrase “video games,” the kid stutters back, asking if, maybe… she plays them? “Oh, yeah,” says Rizzoli, rolling her eyes. For such a quick joke, it almost evokes a belly laugh. Then she glides over to the suspect and makes him stutter again, playing the “innocent, confused, sexy detective” card while totally stealing the scene.
And we come now to Jane Rizzoli. For a woman whose confidence was based mostly on sarcasm and cynicism before this episode, it’s a revelation to see that her elevated emotional intelligence and amped-up sexiness make her more confident. As it stands, Rizzoli might be the best female role model on television. She spends the episode exploring various territories of the heart: trying to cheer up Dr. Isles, but countering her friend’s guff with verbal kidney punches. Welcoming her fallen soldier back into her arms, but turning around to list each bump on the milky slopes of housewife (ending with a horrified, “Buying in bulk”). She treats the assassination with levity (Isles: “I think there might be something trapped in the wound” — Rizzoli: “Well there’s definitely a bullet trapped in the skull”). But by the episode’s end, she also treats the shooter (and the shooter’s father, who’s apparently there because he looks like W.S. Merwin) with a reluctant harshness so deep that you might be compelled to rub your own forehead alongside the shooter’s father.
There has been so much good to say that it’s been hard to mention the assassination plot. Well, that succeeds, too, and marvelously. The same batch of blueberry waffles is found in both the victim’s stomach and a puddle of the killer’s vomit. Then four bottles of dirty water are found near Humphrey Miller’s desk. These shreds of evidence hit the sweet spot between mundane and bizarre. What’s more, they lead to an ending about “take-home toxins” that informs the viewer of a real-world problem while creating ample weight for the final reveal. Even scenes where characters try their best to fit the C.S.I. formula are loaded with authentic emotion. When Maura and Lieutenant Sean Cavanaugh finish saying “Area equals Pi r squared” at the same time, the camera flashes to Sean, who smiles with such genuine, innocent pleasure that you might mistake it for a bigger scene (rather than our usual, “Let’s sit around the computer and wait for Dr. House to have an epiphany” moment).
And this brings us to the final point: Everything works well in this episode, and there are so many good subplots brewing that–if they can maintain the character development and keep each week’s mystery rife with quirky evidence and social commentary (and, of course, keep those kidney jokes coming)–Rizzoli & Isles season four should easily last the summer without running out of steam. What do we have? Frankie makes detective and struggles to escape Rizzoli’s errand list. Isles awaits her father’s murder trial and begins to bond with Kaylyn (a twofer, and a good one, due in part to the sister’s sweet and sour performance). And, if there is any foreshadowing in the world of crime drama, Rizzoli might actually get married. Sudden character changes have been a huge boon for the show (this week), so seeing Casey put a ring on that might give Rizzoli’s character license to become not another bland, newly-married series favorite, but evolve into her strongest three-dimensional self–cable television’s least pandering statement of “Hear me roar” since Nancy Price Botwin started selling marijuana.
all photos credit: james white