Six years ago, TNT tried a show both conventional and unconventional. On paper, a police procedural called “Rizzoli & Isles” set in Boston and focused on a grouchy cop and a super smart medical examiner seemed mundane But in this case, the difference was gender: the two leads were women.
On top of that, the writing was crisp, the humor sharp. It became an immediate hit, eventually becoming Atlanta-based TNT’s most popular show in network history. The seventh and final season begins Monday (June 6) at 9 p.m.
Over the first four seasons, creator Janet Tamaro infused Angie Harmon‘s Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander’s Maura Isles with an endearing odd couple flair. They were the current generation’s “Cagney and Lacey.” Since Tamaro left, the show has focused more on secondary characters and the crimes, much to the chagrin of many of its fans.
We recently spoke with Alexander about the show’s appeal, why she thinks it’s ending and how the show changed over time.
Q: You won a People’s Choice for favorite cable TV actress earlier this year. Were you surprised?
Alexander: Yah. It was such a lovely surprise. I think that it’s a nice award because it is really the fans and people who take the time to vote. We’ve had such a great fan base. They’ve only grown and stayed strong with us. That’s been a real light throughout this whole show.
Q: Were you at all surprised TNT decided to end the show now?
Alexander: I wasn’t that surprised. Our contracts were going to be up. It becomes a renegotiation issue. The network was going in a different direction. We were part of an old regime. There’s a new regime looking to do different things. To keep us going was going to be expensive. It’s politics. The fact that we even got to seven seasons and get to finish this out is fantastic.
Q: Do you think this was the right time to end the show?
Alexander: I have really enjoyed playing Dr. Maura Isles. I really can say in seven years, I never had a boring day playing her. It was never tedious for me to play her. She’s a sunny personality and curious and interested and funny. I was constantly amused by the role. I will miss playing her. We’ve had seven seasons to explore so many things and creatively I’m ready to move on.
Q: How has the character matured over seven seasons?
Alexander: When we first met Maura, she was a little Asperger’s. She was socially awkward. I think it took some time to massage her relationship with Jane and other characters. She matured in a way. I do think there has been some intense situations with her family and when Jane shot her father. That changed the tone of her character. She hardened. She became jaded a bit. It chipped away at her chirpy sunny spirit but made her more colorful and deeper in certain ways. I still think she’s quirky. They’ve moved away from just the comedy stuff into a more well-rounded human being.
Q: What do you think was the key to the success of the show that enabled it to last as long as it has?
Alexander: Jane and Maura. That’s the formula. We’ve rarely seen two women at the helm who get along and support each other. We’re friends. I think that people connect with that relationship. It made them feel good to see women in this dark crime world navigate personal lives along with solving crimes. Besides the crime of the week, it had tonal flexibility. It had a lot of comedy that translated universally. Ultimately, I think the chemistry between Jane and Maura and all the cast made it a little family.
Q: Some fans have said they really felt the chemistry wasn’t quite the same between the two characters in recent seasons, that they weren’t quite as close. Have you read the social media comments?
Alexander: Yah. That has happened the last three years. It was a creative decision. I don’t want to be controversial, it was a creative choice where they just went more into the cop world. It wasn’t as much about our relationship. The first four seasons, we were under direction of Janet Tamaro. We have since changed creators to Jan Nash. That means a changed sensibility. Janet was very interested in the dynamics between women. You can tell she wrote things between the mother and daughter, between the girls. Jan was more into the cop thing. I don’t think Jan didn’t service the women. I do think we’ve had really fun stuff to do over seven years. You can’t keep doing the same thing with the girls all the time. You have to break away. Some episodes were Jane heavy, some Maura heavy. Let me add, also by doing that, in the last three seasons, Jan has been able to heighten the roles for the rest of the cast as well. By not having us together all the time, you get the opportunity to play with other people. But I love watching Jane and Maura. To me, that was always the hook.
Q: Could you give us any idea how season even will play out?
Alexander: I don’t want to give anything away. I do think they’ve grown up. They are thinking about their futures. They’ve been through a lot. Jane has been through a lot of dangerous situations. I don’t know what that has done to her and her family… Both women have been unlucky in love. That hasn’t been on the forefront. Both are independent working women. Something is going to happen to Maura healthwise. She will have to evaluate her future… I hope that at the end, we’ll know these people will remain tight no matter what direction they go in.
Q: I hear you’re trying your hand at directing for the first time in episode 10 [of season seven].
Alexander: I am! This is my first episodic. It’s gone amazing. I haven’t had this much fun since film school! I’ve been collaborating with the team, just being able to have perspective, to work with these wonderful actors… It’s been really fun. I’ve been all smiles for two weeks. I hope I can get good performances from all the characters that matter in the overall picture and tell a good story. And of course, stay on budget and on time! So far, so good.
Q: What did you learn most about yourself playing Maura?
Alexander: It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to beat your own drum. We all work on different frequencies. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no one way to do things. I like that Maura was an odd duck. She’s comfortable with her own odd way of looking at things. Some of my favorite scenes on the show have been those where she’s spewing some strange vocabulary and weird analysis and Jane is looking at her like she has no idea what she’s saying. ‘Can we just go get ice cream?’ Those moments between them have been so much fun to play.
Q: You found some time to have a recurring role on “Shameless” as a lusty professor. How’s that been compared to “Rizzoli”?
Alexander: I’ve done the last two seasons over there. I did six episodes last season. It’s an incredible show to work on. I felt grateful to be able to do it. Warner Brothers allowed me to do it. It’s so totally different. When you play a character as pinched as Maura for so long, it’s nice to literally strip it off and be someone entirely different. It’s much more raw and edgy. It’s provocative. Jumping into that was uncomfortable. You have to let go of any preconceived notions of anything. You shoot faster. You shoot in a more crazy way. They’re wild and emotional and nuts. I loved the experience. It’s been the perfect gift.
Q: Did “Rizzoli & Isles” fans freak out?
Alexander: It’s funny. I wasn’t sure they would accept me in this role… I think some people were shocked. But once they saw the arc of the role, most of the fans understood my creative decision to try this different role. They were on board with that. I hope I brought ‘Shameless’ some new fans!
“Rizzoli & Isles,” 9 p.m. Mondays, TNT (seventh season debut)