"Women's Murder Club" is a terrible name for a criminal procedural, since it evokes a cozy, book-group-like girlfriendiness that can only seem like a sexist way to come at the genre. And the first pilot, sent out months ago, did, alarmingly enough, exude many of these qualities. The four principals -- a detective, a medical examiner, an assistant district attorney and a reporter -- were girly to the point of nausea, sipping lattes and chatting about love lives while a corpse cooled at their feet.
Somewhere Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly quietly wept.
Their, or someone's, lamentations must have been heard because the "Women's Murder Club" that premieres tonight is astonishingly changed, completely for the better. Except the name. Which is even more awful now that the show looks to be a smart, stylish crime drama that just happens to revolve around a group of women as so many have revolved around men. But since the title is that of the James Patterson book on which it is based, perhaps ABC can be excused. Certainly writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain should get the Keep the Best, Discard the Rest award for most improved pilot.
Angie Harmon plays Lindsay Boxer, a tough but tender homicide detective whom we meet as she's trying to get change to feed a meter, having inexplicably found parking right in front of the San Francisco newsstand where she's supposed to meet a reporter. Her luck quickly runs out as that reporter suddenly falls from the sky, landing dead on Lindsay's car. In the investigative aftermath we quickly meet Claire Washburn (Paula Newsome), the medical examiner, and Jill Bernhardt (Laura Harris), the assistant district attorney; the three professionals are also good friends.
The dead reporter was, of course, one of those take-no-prisoners investigative types who has, according to Lindsay, won "like six Pulitzers." (Memo to ABC: two is quite enough to be impressive, six is just silly.) So was she working on a story so big someone would kill her for it? Who knows, since she was so secretive she didn't even tell her editor what she was doing (even after all those Pulitzers) and all her notebooks are missing. Enter intrepid metro reporter Cindy Thomas (Aubrey Dollar) who aids the investigation and attempts to crack the club. Indeed, the writers cleverly address, and mock, their own conceit through Cindy, who watches with some amusement as the other three share information and knowing grins.
"Do you three have some sort of . . . thing?" she asks. "We're friends," says Claire, "we share information." "What? Like a club?" "No," the three say, turning on their heels and leaving. "Not a club," she says wryly. "Got it."
The lattes may be gone, but the intimacies are not, only now they are more workplace appropriate. Lindsay must deal with her ex-husband, whom she may or may not still love, being back in the picture; Jill is forced to confront her commitment-phobic ways and Claire is the married sage. "You put your head down, you get lost in your career," she tells her friends as they ponder the isolation of the dead reporter. "You wake up 10 years later and realize your job doesn't hug back." They give each other backup, sass and that communal model of work Carol Gilligan made so famous, their only point of competition being who has the most incomplete personal life.
It isn't the newest dramatic tension ever visited on female protagonists, but sadly, the balancing act between love and work or family and work remains as relevant as it was when visited on Mary Tyler Moore or "That Girl." There is a definite "Sex and the City" meets "CSI" vibe to "Women's Murder Club" but it's a good vibe. Harmon, with her "Law and Order" credentials, makes a natural bridge and a believable detective. Bearing an eerie resemblance to Susan St. James in looks and throaty voice, she could easily be part of a modernized "McMillan and Wife." You know, the one where the two are divorced but still hot for each other and the wife gets her own name and a coterie of hard-working girlfriends.
Every great mystery series, literary or televised, depends far more on the audience's relationship to the detectives than the actual mystery. The crime tracked down in the pilot of "Women's Murder Club" is moderately interesting, though it seems a more high-concept crime will also provide a narrative arc. But it's the women who will make or break this show, which is clearly hoping to appeal to crime procedural fans and female drama devotees.
"Why are we friends with you?" Lindsay asks Claire with that wry voice of a thousand buddy flicks. "Because I'll always tell you the truth," she answers.
Now that may wind up being a club worth belonging to.
'Women's Murder Club'
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)