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THE FALL TV SEASON

Hopes, heels are high

Struggling ABC is banking on its high-profile 'Karen Sisco' to deliver the ratings hit it so desperately needs.

October 01, 2003|Anita M. Busch | Special to The Times

Hit-hungry ABC is pinning its revival hopes on a pistol-packing, poker-playing, con-dating U.S. marshal who goes about her business in stiletto heels.

That would be "Karen Sisco," the character and the title of the highest-profile drama the network is debuting this fall. Giving ABC a new hit is a crucial yet formidable task, but this series brings with it a formidable arsenal. It comes from top-tier Hollywood filmmakers, features a star fresh from a hit movie franchise, has the ambition and means to shoot exterior scenes in highly visual Miami and, most of all, was born in the mind of one of the most popular and admired authors in current fiction: Elmore Leonard.

Even before its premiere at 10 tonight, "Karen Sisco" has already been dubbed fall's coolest drama. Of course, in TV, cool is nice, drawing big audiences is even better. ABC, at least, feels good about its chances.

"Karen Sisco" is based on Elmore Leonard's novel "Out of Sight," which was made into the 1998 movie starring George Clooney as Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez as Sisco.

Unlike the film, which revolved around the Foley character, the series is true to the book and centers on Sisco. Played by Carla Gugino, who was last seen as the super mom in the successful film franchise "Spy Kids," "Sisco" follows a U.S. marshal in Miami who is confident in her job, has a loving relationship with her father but has a personal life littered with would-be relationships with soon-to-be convicted felons.

Co-starring with Gugino is veteran actor Robert Forster, whose star turn in the Quentin Tarantino film "Jackie Brown," based on another Leonard book, has given him a keen understanding of the author and his characters. It was Forster who summed up the spirit of the show best when he said of "Karen Sisco," "In the world of Elmore Leonard, believable things happen that are even stranger than fiction."

Forster plays Gugino's father, a retired cop who is now a private investigator. Joining them is Bill Duke as Gugino's tough but fair boss.

Shot partially in Miami, which provides the show's soft lighting, the series is smart and hip, weaving in plots as well as music. The same song that was used in "Get Shorty" -- the Isley Brother's "It's Your Thing" -- opens each show.

The choice of music is central to the series, according to Jason Smilovic, one of the show's five writers. "From a storytelling perspective, music is very important," he said. "Music can set the tone of a scene. If you actually reference the music itself, it can give deeper meaning to the characters and the plot."

Although Leonard -- known by the nickname "Dutch" -- is not writing scripts, he does serve as a consultant for the show. And his nothing-is-as-it-seems sensibility infuses the offbeat series; Sisco comes home every night and downs a shot of bourbon; she and her father play poker with a bunch of ex-cons because as he puts it, "it makes for a cleaner game"; and there is a constant romantic chemistry between her and the criminals.

There is a mob boss who is a recurring character in the first couple of episodes. "He's a mob boss with a heart of gold," laughed Danny DeVito, who plays the role and is one of the show's executive producers.

ABC falters in ratings

The show debuts at a crucial time for ABC, which tied for third with relative upstart Fox in last season's ratings race, far behind NBC and CBS. With returning dramas such as "Alias," "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice" not showing exceptional ratings muscle, and few observers predicting much from ABC's other new dramas -- "Threat Matrix" and "10-8" -- there's even more pressure on "Karen Sisco."

Asked how important it is for the network, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said candidly, "Very, and for a couple of reasons. It's important for us to launch a great drama. We need to demonstrate that we can do more than comedy. 'Alias' is a fantastic show, but it's in its third season. We need to launch another hit show."

The network, she notes, also needs to prove to its affiliates around the country that it can deliver in the 10 p.m. time slot.

ABC is using one of its most successful shows, "The Bachelor," as the lead-in for "Sisco," hoping that female viewers will remain. It needs the boost, since it's going up against NBC's seemingly unstoppable hit "Law & Order."

"Our feeling is that 10 p.m. Wednesday was a time period that could sustain another strong hour," said Lyne, who calls the counter-programming a "great alternative" for viewers.

If "The Bachelor" is supposed to keep the women watching, the men will likely be drawn to the tight skirts, high heels and cleavage-revealing tops Gugino's Sisco dons.

And if the expectations are high for "Sisco," the team behind it sounds confident.

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