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'Karen' has an independent streak

Quirky Elmore Leonard character anchors new crime series

Most of today's popular TV cops rely on coolheaded analysis to capture their bad guys. The trusty ensembles on "CSI" and "Law & Order" are obsessed with science, law, and intellectual psych-outs. Seemingly always in professional mode, they pore over illogical alibis, contrary evidence, and issues of jurisdiction. They play impassioned little games of chess.

The methods of federal marshal Karen Sisco are not quite so controlled, and that's what makes "Karen Sisco" so much fun. The literary creation of author Elmore Leonard, who has featured her in his novels, Karen (Carla Gugino) is a bit of a mess. Stubborn, risk-taking, emotionally bottled-up, she apprehends her fugitives only after a few bourbons and one or two life-threatening encounters. That's why she treats her Miami-based agency's psychiatrist like an infectious disease in tonight's premiere, at 10 on Channel 5. She's Miss Independent.

Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow on "Alias" is a similarly free agent, far from the suited sleuths of "Law & Order." But while Sydney is known for crying real tears when she's not kickboxing bad guys, Karen is all tough-girl veneer. In the hands of Gugino, she's a lot more hard-nosed than Jennifer Lopez's version of the same character in the Leonard-based movie "Out of Sight." The only glimmers of emotional need by Gugino's Karen are her cellphone calls and visits to her private-eye father, Marshall (Robert Forster of the Leonard film adaptation "Jackie Brown"). Of course, although Marshall and his ex-convict buddies advise Karen on her cases and on her misguided love life, she doesn't much listen. She also pays little heed to her boss (Bill Duke), who frets over her like a second father.

One of the pluses of "Karen Sisco" is that, true to Leonard's fiction, the fugitives Karen tracks are more than generic baddies. Like "Keen Eddie," another crime series based more on the human quirks of its cops than on the science of crime-solving, the villains have personality. The excellent pilot for the series, which ABC has mysteriously chosen to reschedule as the third episode, features a womanizing killer on the loose who flirts with Karen on her cellphone. In tonight's less compelling hour, Karen realizes she may be sleeping with the enemy, a charter-boat owner played by Patrick Dempsey. "Karen Sisco" is primarily about the ongoing spectacle of Karen's high-heeled bravado, but its crimes of the week are also rich in character.

There's nothing wrong with the crime series that focus on procedural methods, one of which, "Law & Order," is the formidable Wednesday night competitor of "Karen Sisco." They each offer viewers an hour of whodunit satisfaction as well as a subliminal message about the dependability of the country's crime-fighting force. But "Karen Sisco" offers viewers a nice change of pace, a crime alternative rooted in unconventional police methods, Miami atmosphere, and that old-fashioned standby, luck.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

Karen Sisco

Starring: Carla Gugino, Robert Forster, Bill Duke

On: ABC, Ch.5

Time: Tonight, 10-11

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