"He liked to play the Underdogs..."
-Robert Forster's Marshall Sisco To Karen-
The final episode of KAREN SISCO, entitled HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE, aired in March of 2003 on the U.S.A network. It was one of three episodes ABC decided not to run when SISCO failed to catch fire with audiences in the fall of 2002. Helmed by STRANGE DAYS director Kathyrn Bigelow from a script by Emmy winning writer Peter Lefcourt, HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE was the most emotional and best episode in the series tragically short run. It was also the episode that truly signaled that the makers of KAREN SISCO were going to turn it into much more than just another routine network cop show.
Backed by a great Hammond driven score and the lovely blue toned photography by Emmy winning cinematography Edward J. Pei, HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE was a really potent way to send the series out on. Compared to much of the cringe worthy reality programing people flocked to after 9-11, the show and series feels positively brilliant.
The main thing that made the show so special was the relationship between Karen and her father Marshall Sisco, played by the always wonderful Robert Forster. In Forster and Gugino, ABC hit upon one of the great teams in modern television, even if ultimately the station was too short-sighted to see it. Relationships between father and daughters on television often have a stale and false feel to them, but in KAREN SISCO it was very rich and real feeling. The widowed Marshall was an alcoholic cop who was emotionally in and out of young Karen's life when she was growing up. Neither have ever fully reconciled their feelings about it, and there is an extraordinary scene towards the end of HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE where Karen confronts him on it. Its the kind of scene that isn't seen much on television anymore, and the two actors play it out beautifully.
HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE is the most Forster driven episode of the series. After a good friend is killed Marshall Sisco becomes obsessed with finding the culprit, while in the meantime Karen is stuck on a rather routine drug smuggling case. The side storyline should have been abandoned and the show should have concentrated just on the investigation of Marshall's friend. Thankfully the majority of the show does this, and Forster delivers a finely nuanced portrayal of a man racked with guilt and anger.
One of the great things about KAREN SISCO was the way it happily played into many genre cliches, like dirty cops, sleazy drug dealers and sly bookies. The show wasn't afraid to be generic at times, but because of the always intelligent direction and the extraordinary work of Gugino and Fortser even the most pedestrian story lines felt fresh.
Joining Gugino and Forster in this final episode is the great Clarence Williams 111 from THE MOD SQUAD. As the frustrated cop who sells himself out for some easy bread, Williams is especially good in support here. Also always worth noting is the always awesome Bill Duke who played Karen's boss, Amos, in all ten of the episodes.
The other thing that was consistently great about the KAREN SISCO series was the way Gugino played Karen as a woman in a very male dominated world who refused to sacrifice her femininity. Karen can fit in with the guys but she never sells herself out as a woman doing it. KAREN SISCO is a celebration of the modern woman and not an apology for it. Sisco is a complex character who fits in perfectly well with the 'love em and leave em' classic noir male character of the past...that aspect is one thing that made her feel so revolutionary in the original book, the film and this series(and something that even modern audiences turned off to five years ago when this show was cancelled.)
Carla Gugino was playing a role that had already been rendered beautifully by Jennifer Lopez in OUT OF SIGHT. I really can't choose which one I like better as Karen Sisco. Certainly I value Gugino more overall as an actress, but Jennifer Lopez's poor career choices shouldn't take away from her exceptional work in OUT OF SIGHT. Both actresses took Elmore Leonard's iconic character and made her very real and alive...they should both be commended for their performances.
KAREN SISCO could have become a great modern series but ABC wasn't willing to stick with it, which was a real shame. All ten episodes of the series aired first on the U.S.A. network and then on Sleuth. No DVD is currently planned but Amazon has a page where you can request it.
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