Television: Loaded Gun, Empty Heart

In the snappy, sexy, engaging Karen Sisco, a U.S. marshal gets bad guys and looks for one good one

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The title character of Karen Sisco (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. E.T.), a U.S. marshal in Miami, spends the first episode with an ugly bruise at the top of her left breast. You can read this image three ways: 1) here is a cop not afraid to get hurt bringing in the bad guys; 2) here is a new TV babe with a "Look over here!" sign above her decolletage; 3) here is a woman with a wound over her heart.

Sisco works on all three levels: action, sex and emotion. As in Out of Sight, the 1998 movie (adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel) on which Sisco is based, at its core it's the story of a woman juggling work and personal life. (Carla Gugino, of Spy Kids, takes over the curvy, gun-toting J. Lo character.) After admitting to a date that she's killed two men--one with a gun, one mano a mano--Karen insists that "I'm just a girl." TV has blurred the line between "girl" and "person who kills with her bare hands" for years (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias), but Karen Sisco is an appealing rendition because it knows that a girl--or any kind of person--is a complicated thing to be.

The show is snappily shot and makes good use of its retro sound track--it's so Miami bright and Motown cool, you should watch it with shades on--but, more important, it has Leonard's sense of the imperfections of humanity. It has good guys and bad guys, but they share similar flaws and yearnings. The show's moral center is Karen's dad (Robert Forster), a former marshal who has a weekly card game with a group of ex-cons. Learning that Karen's new boyfriend may be involved in shady dealings, he just says, "Takes all kinds to make a world, sweetheart. The trick is to keep in mind which kind you are." It's not too Freudian to suspect that Karen's thing for charming rogues has a little to do with the man she still calls Daddy.

Sisco's dramatic challenge is to retain Out of Sight's sensibility without repeating the movie, and itself: twice in two episodes we see Karen in flirtations with charismatic criminals and being taunted by creeps who don't think this little girl has the guts to shoot them. Its commercial challenge is to interest viewers in a cop with a personal life, in the time slot opposite NBC's no-feelings-please juggernaut Law & Order. If anyone can do that, it's Gugino, a potential breakout star, and not only for her Lynda Carter 2.0 looks. Pursuing a con man who marries and robs lonely rich women, Karen is asked by one of his exes--who is still sweet on him--whether she'd kill him if it came to that. "I don't really care how good a listener he is," Karen says. Other actresses would snap out the line glibly; Gugino gives it the voice of both a dedicated marshal and a woman weary of slick-talking men. Karen Sisco is like that: a witty, mature drama that can hit both the chest and the heart. --By James Poniewozik