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Chicks who kick
Can Karen Sisco and Tru Calling live up to Alias and Buffy?

Years from now, sociologists might look back at today’s female TV action-show heroines and conclude that women in the ’00s were a seesawing blend of sadness and muscle, lonelyheart and avenger, with the superhuman ability to run at a full clip while wearing stiletto heels.

We have Buffy and Alias to thank for that, and I’m not being sarcastic here. At once fearless and vulnerable, Buffy Summers and Alias’s Sydney Bristow are the most imitated female protagonists on TV today. Buffy saved the world, but she couldn’t figure out how to make a guy not feel intimidated by her. Sydney has dismantled doomsday machines without flinching, but when she got dumped by her boyfriend, well, that was a weepy, angry catastrophe. Sure these shows were fantasies, but with the hard edge of truth. They hint that, away from the post-feminist playing field, strong women harbor the secret wish for a little patch of emotional ground to call their own.

And the networks have yet to exhaust the tough/tender heroine genre. ABC’s Karen Sisco (10 p.m. Wednesdays) is based on the Elmore Leonard crime novel Out of Sight and the Jennifer Lopez/George Clooney movie of the same name. But the show is shamelessly post-Alias, from its firearm-toting, full-lipped federal-agent heroine to the daddy-daughter relationship at its center. Fox’s Tru Calling (8 p.m. Thursdays, premiering October 30) is form-fit for Buffy’s old viewers. It stars former Buffy cast member Eliza Dushku (who played the bad-girl vampire slayer, Faith) as a morgue attendant who discovers she has the ability to hear the voices of the dead. And, honestly, it’s a responsibility she’d rather, like, not have to deal with.

Like Buffy and Sydney, Karen and Tru are warriors who just want to lay down their burdens and be "normal." In an affecting scene from the October 15 episode, Karen Sisco (Carla Gugino), a Miami-based US marshal, tried valiantly to quell her date’s nervousness over her admission that she’s killed two felons in the line of duty. The guy was practically quaking with inadequacy, and Karen knew the relationship wasn’t happening, but she gave it a try anyway; with a wistful smile, she whispered, "I’m just a girl."

Gugino tempers Karen’s grit with inviting undertones of melancholy and warmth. In the first episode, Karen got shot in the flak jacket during a raid and spent the rest of the show sporting a big ugly bruise on her chest. She also has an ache around her heart; she spent that episode in a complicated mating dance with a wanted bank robber, and all the sweet talk and sex in the world wasn’t enough to stave off the inevitable — she was going to have to bring him in.

Executive-produced by Danny DeVito (who has a recurring role as a slimy little crime boss), Karen Sisco nails the Elmore Leonard vibe; the criminals are ruthless and often hilariously stupid, Miami is a candy-colored contradiction, and dedicated fugitive chasers like Karen have to make end runs around pissy FBI potentates to get the job done right. Like Leonard’s peerless noir novels, Karen Sisco is enjoyable pulp populated with splashy characters; Robert Forster takes a particularly charming turn as Karen’s doting father, a retired US marshal who works as a private eye when he isn’t trying to find a husband for his daughter.

But this is Gugino’s show. Best known as the dishy mom in the Spy Kids movies, Gugino amps up the tough-cookie bravado here, and she’s a kick to watch, whether chasing gung-ho after a fugitive (Karen’s not afraid to get banged up and bruised) or nursing her physical and romantic wounds with too much late-night bourbon. Like Buffy, Karen keeps falling for sexy bad guys, because they’re the only ones who understand the adrenaline rush of the chase, who respect her power. In two of the four episodes that have aired so far, she engaged in a smoldering, doomed flirtation with her quarry, a device that might get old pretty quickly. Indeed, I’m not sure that Karen Sisco can go much of anywhere except down the same road week to week. But then, when a show has the good sense to put Leonard Cohen’s "Chelsea Hotel #2," Marvin Gaye’s "Trouble Man," and the Ripchords’ "Karen" on the soundtrack in the same episode, I’m inclined just to enjoy the ride.

On Buffy, Eliza Dushku’s sarcastic, self-destructive Faith accomplished the impossible — she made Buffy seem like a shrinking violet. This had a lot to do with the fact that Dushku speaks in an alluring rasp, has dark doe eyes out of a Japanese anime, and did her slaying (and seducing) while wearing low-rise leather pants, punky studded wristlets, and cut-off T-shirts. But the lost-girl vulnerability with which Dushku infused this hipster tart elevated Faith from mere Maxim wank fodder to a complicated anti-heroine. Faith kicked ass, and unlike Buffy, she regretted nothing in the morning. She was a post-feminist slut, and she was awesome.

On Tru Calling, Dushku’s Tru Davies carries around a load of guilt over her mother’s death — mom was murdered in front of Tru when the girl was 12. In flashback, we see Tru at the funeral looking in the coffin and thinking she can hear her mother speaking to her. Ten years later, Tru, her sister, and her brother (their dad remarried and took off) fill the mom-less void with drugs (sis), gambling (bro), and ambition (scrappy Tru is putting herself through medical school). On her first day of work at the city morgue, Tru hears a voice calling her, whereupon she opens freezer drawers until she finds the source — a dead woman, an apparent homicide, who opens her eyes and asks Tru to help her. Suddenly, Tru is propelled back to the previous day, where she has a chance to save the dead woman from her fate.

This is a sexed-up spin on the old It’s a Wonderful Life story, and you’ve seen it before, in everything from episodes of The X-Files to the sci-fi series Early Edition. And that’s not the only part of Tru Calling that feels like déjà vu. There’s the first episode’s opening homage to Lola rennt/Run, Lola, Run (the seminal bit of Eurotrash that also inspired Alias), in which Tru is running against the clock. (She’s headed to her college graduation, in case you can’t tell from the plunging, bouncing little shirt she’s wearing.) Then there’s the brazenly Buffy-esque premise of a girl who’s gifted with powers she doesn’t want or understand yet accepts them and soldiers on, battling personal demons as she goes.

Tru Calling winks at big issues of philosophy, spirituality, and redemption: what would you do if you had a second chance? Some of the people Tru helps, like her cokehead sister, don’t want to be helped. But this intriguing wrinkle hasn’t yet been explored to its fullest. Instead, the show is smeared with Fox’s patronizing lipstick kisses to its intended audience of young women. If you could go back and relive a day, you could, you know, get even with your cheating boyfriend or grab the cute shirt you were eyeing moments before some rude shopper snatches it away. This is the same mistake the WB made in ignoring the diverse and age-varied audience it had for Buffy.

Not that Tru Calling is a worthy successor to Buffy. I am quite smitten with Zach Galifianakis as Tru’s dweeby supervisor at the morgue (he has a poignant little mannerism where he places his hands on the sides of his jelly belly while talking to Tru, as if making an offering of his imperfections), but one quirky supporting character does not a Scooby Gang make. And the two episodes I saw were dangerously formulaic: Tru saves the day but (oops!) badly mis-predicts how the situation is destined to play out. At the last minute, she has to race against the clock again (more running, running, running — this girl needs a car) to put things right. Tru Calling expends a lot of energy but, like its heroine, keeps ending up stuck in the same day.

NBC APPEARS TO HAVE LOST FAITH in Boomtown after airing only two episodes this season. The show has been removed from its 10 p.m. Friday time slot and put on the dreaded "hiatus." This after series creator Graham Yost made changes in its signature multiple-viewpoint perspective, at the network’s request; Vanessa Williams was also added to the cast in an attempt to attract women viewers. In short, NBC messed with a great thing, dumbing down and blanding out the most original and compelling drama it had.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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