Why <i>Karen Sisco</i> Wasn’t <i>Justified</i>, But Darn Good Anyway

FX's Elmore Leonard-inspired neo-Western Justified is closing out a stellar fourth season, with a fifth already greenlit for January 2014. It just reinforces the old adage about the third time being the charm, as Justified represents television's third attempt at launching a successful Leonard-based series. The first was Maximum Bob, which came and went in 1998 and while that show has its fans, it never had the makings of a breakout hit and the author himself reportedly didn't care for it one bit. That was followed by Karen Sisco in 2003, which seemed destined for success. It had a gorgeous star (Carla Gugino), a great setting (Miami), an experienced producing team (including Danny DeVito and future FX head honcho, John Landgraf), sparkling scripts (including a handful by Leonard himself) and a high-profile primetime berth on ABC's Wednesday night line-up. The ace pilot alone deservedly inspired critical hosannas, suggesting that U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco -- previously seen in the form of Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh's equally great big-screen Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight -- would be solving crimes for years to come.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. All of that advanced praise translated into miniscule ratings and by November, the show was gone after only seven episodes. (An additional three were broadcast in 2004 as part of a re-airing on USA.) To this day, Karen Sisco sadly remains unavailable via any legal home viewing format -- it's not on DVD, Netflix or even Hulu Plus. (Gugino did reprise the role in a Season 3 episode of Justified, although rights issues prevented them from using Karen's last name.) So what went wrong? Here are four reasons that might explain Karen Sisco's failure to launch and stick around like Justified has.

It Arrived Before The Closer
It's easy to forget in a TV landscape currently populated by shows like Scandal, Body of Proof, Rizzoli & Isles, The Good Wife and the recently cancelled In Plain Sight, but back in 2003, female-led procedurals were a rare find. And those procedurals that did have major female characters always paired them with a dude that got equal (if not more) amounts of screentime, think Marg Helgenberger on CSI: Original Flavor or Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: SVU. It took Kyra Sedgwick's Brenda Leigh Johnson to burst through that glass ceiling (in the U.S. anyway; Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison -- who Johnson was modeled after -- broke the barrier across the pond) on TNT's out of the box hit, The Closer, which premiered in 2005. That was two years too late for Karen Sisco, which positioned its cool, confident heroine at the center of all the crime-related action rather than playing back-up to a male alpha dog. (The only consistent male presences on the series were Karen's dad, played terrifically by Robert Forster, and her boss, the eternally exasperated Bill Duke.) Today, Karen would be one of many badass female lawwomen on the air, like Justified's own Rachel Brooks (who, of course, isn't the lead on that show... but maybe she should be). At the time, she was something of a trailblazer -- one that a mass audience maybe wasn't entirely prepared to accept.

It Wasn't On Cable
Justified launched to 4.2 million viewers in 2010 and its weekly first-run episodes generally attract around 3 million eyeballs. If the show posted those numbers on, say, ABC -- the network that took a chance on both Maximum Bob and Karen Sisco -- it too would have been gone after seven installments. But in the basic cable realm, those are above-average ratings that practically guarantee a renewal. Had Karen Sisco premiered on USA, rather than burning off its 10 produced episodes that way, there's a strong likelihood it would have been granted another season. But basic cable was a different universe in 2003, with the The Shield only just having set FX on the original programming path that eventually led it to Justified. Few of the channels that now provide steady competition to the Big Five networks had the resources to make and market a series like Karen Sisco. If one of them rolled the dice on it, though, they probably would have come up lucky.

It Was Too Episodic
Although Justified started off as a mostly crime-of-the-week style series, it progressively launched into more serialized story arcs that deepened the characterizations of its hero, Raylan Givens, and his extensive supporting cast. Had the show survived, it's possible that we would have seen that happen to Karen as well. But the initial batch of episodes focused heavily on the (very well-executed) crime stuff and backgrounded the characterizations. As penned by the writing team and played by Gugino, Sisco was a blast to spend time with, but lacked some of the compelling inner life that was clearly present in Raylan even in the early procedural-based episodes of Justified.

It Didn't Have a Boyd
One can't underestimate the importance of Walton Goggins's Boyd Crowder to Justified's creative success. Originally slated to perish in the pilot, Raylan's one-time pal and one-time reformed criminal, Boyd has instead survived and flourished, functioning as both an ally and a thorn in Raylan's side depending on the day. The character allows the writers to get away from the binary black-and-white world of most cops-and-crooks procedurals and embrace a more morally grey universe that's frequently glimpsed in Leonard's novels. In contrast, the lightened-up Karen Sisco had a great heroine, but no great villain -- or even frenemy -- to pit her against.

Like we said Karen Sisco is shamefully unavailable on DVD or via a streaming service. Somebody should do something about that, pronto.

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