10 HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE
April 14, 2004 (USA)
Writer: Peter Lefcourt
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Although it was a crime drama, KAREN SISCO was light in tone. Not a spoof or breezy like cop shows of the 1970s like STARSKY & HUTCH, but a series with quirky characters and humor that flowed naturally from them. It felt like a breath of fresh air in a network television landscape packed with grim shows like 24, LAW & ORDER and C.S.I., in which tightlipped characters solve crimes with barely a hint of a smile.
Of course, KAREN SISCO was a ratings bust, so perhaps audiences weren’t looking for fresh air in their detective shows. “He Was a Friend of Mine” is certainly the darkest segment of SISCO’s limited run, a bleak outing that takes its characters to a place we had never seen them before. Nor would we again, as “He Was a Friend of Mine” was the final episode ever telecast.
Mordecai Jones (Robert Deacon), a friend of the Siscos for many years, is found dead in a Miami warehouse. The investigating police, led by young detective Rollins (Dylan Bruno, now a regular on NUMB3RS) and Dave Campos (THE MOD SQUAD’s Clarence Williams III), an old colleague of Karen’s father Marshall (Robert Forster), close the case and determine it an accident when the autopsy shows that Mordecai died of a heroin overdose. As Mordecai’s best friend, Marshall knows he was clean and begins his own investigation, which leads to major head-butting with Campos, who warns Karen (Carla Gugino) to pull her obsessive dad off the case before it consumes him.
If this was the direction in which KAREN SISCO was headed before ABC cancelled it, then the series had by no means yet hit its peak. Although the offbeat tone of the show, which coincided with that of the motion picture OUT OF SIGHT, from which the Sisco character (played by Jennifer Lopez) was taken, was the right one creatively, stepping back from the formula occasionally, as writer Peter Lefcourt did here, opened new doors into the minds of the characters. For one thing, “He Was a Friend of Mine” is the first time we see open friction between the Siscos, who to this point had never been less than bosom buddies who joked and hugged. The Karen/Marshall relationship was one of television’s most interesting between a father and a daughter, and Lefcourt shows us their rarely seen dark side, exposing us to secrets from Marshall’s past that he’d never admitted to Karen.
Gugino shines in the episode, which kills time with a fluffy subplot that disguises Karen as a hooker to lure a drug dealer to confess (which does allow Gugino to act sexy, which she does exceedingly well), but this is Forster’s episode and he is the “mine” of the title. Never showy, Forster acts with calm determination even when Marshall’s emotions are at full tilt, as the ex-cop puts his very life on the line to preserve a friend’s memory. Is it out of a sense of justice or a sense of guilt, for reasons revealed in Lefcourt’s teleplay? Reading Forster’s tight face allows us to make our own decision.
Surprisingly, director Kathryn Bigelow has helmed neither a TV episode nor a feature film since making her only KAREN SISCO episode. The former wife of director James Cameron (TITANIC), Bigelow once had quite a big-screen career, specializing in action movies (virtually the only female director to do so) like POINT BREAK, BLUE STEEL and STRANGE DAYS. After the submarine thriller K-19, starring Harrison Ford, died at the box office in 2002, Bigelow found herself out of work, with “He Was a Friend of Mine” her only significant directing credit since.
After ten episodes, KAREN SISCO was history. It’s unlikely it will ever receive a DVD release, although the entire run has appeared on the Sleuth cable channel, which is dedicated to showing old crime dramas owned by Universal. The series may not have been successful, but it certainly didn’t hurt the careers of its stars. Gugino returned to network television two seasons later as the star of CBS’ science fiction thriller THRESHOLD, but it was cancelled after 13 episodes. She also memorably appeared in the smash hits SIN CITY and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and guest-starred in the acclaimed HBO sitcom ENTOURAGE. Forster has steadily bounced back and forth between guest shots on TV series (like HUFF and NUMB3RS) and supporting roles in motion pictures, both major (FIREWALL) and independent, including the upcoming horror movie RISE: BLOOD HUNTER, which also stars Carla Gugino. Hopefully, director Sebastian Gutierrez, who wrote the KAREN SISCO episode “Dog Day Sisco,” was smart enough to give them scenes together. It would be a shame to waste such magnificent chemistry.