Before ‘Justified,’ There Was ‘Karen Sisco’

This rare female-fronted police procedural series played a small part in the creation of the more successful Elmore Leonard-inspired show.
Karen Sisco
By  · Published on April 22nd, 2020

Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance.

Elmore Leonard had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. While studios and filmmakers have adapted his punchy pulp stories for decades, the author hated most of them. He liked Justified, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and the original 3:10 to Yuma. Otherwise, he wasn’t happy with how others reimagined his work.

That said, many of Leonard’s adaptations have been critical hits, including Out of Sight, which stars Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney as unlikely lovers who reside on opposite sides of the law. The movie’s success helped to spawn Karen Sisco, a short-lived TV series that debuted on ABC in 2003 and was canceled after only seven episodes.

Carla Gugino plays the series’ titular character, who had been portrayed by Lopez in Out of Sight. J.Lo’s take was critically acclaimed and rightfully so, but it’s quite criminal that neither Gugino nor this show got the appreciation they deserved at the time. They still haven’t.

While there have been plenty of police procedurals featuring female law enforcement officers, they have a tendency to be paired up with male counterparts. However, there are countless shows out there about men — mostly hardboiled, tough-guy types — who take charge of the investigations by themselves.

Karen Sisco, meanwhile, centered around a lone wolf female marshal who could stand toe-to-toe with any dude. Of course, this is unsurprising considering that the character was conjured by Leonard, whose stories feature plenty of strong women. But that’s literature. For television in the early 2000s, Karen Sisco was quite refreshing in that regard.

Like many detective shows before this one, Karen Sisco revolves around a hard-drinking badass who exudes coolness. She’s charming and quick-witted, but she’s also tough-as-nails and deeply flawed. Her job is to take down the bad guys, but she isn’t above also dating them. Leonard loved to write about characters who were strong-willed but prone to making mistakes, and Karen Sisco embraced this element of his work.

Karen isn’t much of a people person in the show, but she does have a strong relationship with her father (played by Robert Forster, who also appears in Jackie Brown). He’s a retired marshal, and she turns to him whenever she’s in need of advice, both professionally and personally. Forster excelled at playing effortlessly cool, no-nonsense characters with a compassionate center, and he was perfectly cast here as a lawman and paternal figure.

Bill Duke rounded up the main cast as Karen’s boss, Amos. He’s one of the few people in the police department who supports her, as most of Karen’s male colleagues don’t see her as their equal. They also aren’t as smart, witty, or good at their jobs, which is why Amos entrusts Karen to handle the big cases. He’s also forced to keep the peace between her and one of the higher-ups (played by Obba Babatundé), who never misses an opportunity to criticize her.

However, the show belongs to Gugino, whose performance throughout the entire series is magnetic and brimming with charisma. You also get the impression that she — along with everyone else — was having a blast at the time. But Karen is the type of character who most actors would love to play as there are so many interesting layers to her persona.

Still, Karen Sisco didn’t rewrite the police procedural rulebook by any means. In fact, the show was quite formulaic when it came to solving crimes, but its old-school sensibilities added to the charm. These shows are comfort food. At the same time, the crime plots were always very entertaining and carried out with gusto, and that goes a long way.

In one episode, two dimwits escape from jail and try to steal an autographed baseball. Karen proceeds to spend a substantial portion of the episode toying with them via phone conversations, before ultimately sending them back to the penitentiary. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s a prime example of the quirkiness that gave the show its own identity.

Of course, any show that boasts Leonard’s hallmarks — entertaining characters, witty dialogue, engaging crime plots, and a smooth jazz soundtrack — is always going to stand out from its peers. Karen Sisco was a genuine attempt to translate the spirit of the author’s brand of pulp to the small screen, which made for some enjoyable, pulp-infused storytelling.

Fun wasn’t enough to appease the network, however. Karen Sisco shared a time slot with Law and Order and couldn’t compete with the more popular procedural series. The rest is history. The show was canceled and most people today don’t even know about its existence. But one positive did come out of it: laying the foundations for Justified.

Karen Sisco’s producers Michael Dinner and John Landgraf produced the other Leonard-inspired series, too, and they didn’t forget about their earlier show. Karen Sisco and Justified are set in the same universe, and Gugino even reprised her role as the marshal in FX’s neo-western series, albeit with some modifications.

In the episode “Cut Ties,” Gugino is implied to be Karen Sisco. Her name had to be changed to Karen Goodall as the network didn’t own the rights to the character, but in Justified’s timeline, Karen is older, married, and has a new surname.

The connection between Justified and Karen Sisco is further bolstered in the episode when it’s revealed that Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Goodall met each other when they worked in Miami. Karen Sisco just so happens to be set in Miami. I wish Justified featured more of Gugino’s character, but the episode is a fun nod to a forgotten series nonetheless.

In an ideal world, ABC and FX would come to an agreement and revive Karen Sisco as a Justified spinoff. While Karen only played a tiny part in the beloved neo-western, the success of the show would probably set up Karen Sisco for a better chance at success this time around.

Female-centric detective shows are still few and far between these days, so a revived Karen Sisco could be welcome and refreshing in the current TV landscape — especially one that’s inspired by the work of one of the best crime authors to ever pick up a pen. All in all, Karen Sisco is most definitely Petition Worthy.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.