Rizzoli is expecting a baby. Isles is mulling the kiss she shared with Rizzoli’s brother.
And the entire team is struggling with a sudden loss.
“Rizzoli & Isles” has much to cover — with someone new running the show, literally — as Season 5 of the TNT crime drama begins Tuesday (June 17). Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander continue as the Tess Gerritsen-created title characters, whose frequent repartee is a good match for new executive producer Jan Nash, experienced in both comedies (“Ellen”) and police procedurals (“Without a Trace”).
Serious matters will be the order as the season starts, as anyone aware of a cast member’s death should expect. The late Lee Thompson Young played Detective Barry Frost, whose absence will be mourned by Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli, medical examiner Maura Isles and their colleagues.
Co-star Alexander admits she questioned how the show would deal with that situation. “I did not know what the answer was,” she tells Zap2it. “All we did know was that we needed to pay the proper respect to the character and to our friend, and the first two episodes of the season really do that. Jan really found a way that I’m pretty confident the audience is going to respond to the way we did.”
In taking over from original “Rizzoli & Isles” executive producer Janet Tamaro, Nash knew she was inheriting story lines that had to be treated with care. Alexander credits her with handling them “in a way that I don’t know could have been done better.”
Recently a consulting producer on ABC’s now-ended “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” Nash believes “Rizzoli & Isles” marks “the first time I’ve had a chance to use all the parts of my background … not just to do something that’s both procedural and comedic, but also a show that has really strong heart.
“Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are, from my perspective, on the right side of the line by doing heroic things in the right ways. They’re very empathetic and sympathetic, so the shows can be not just funny or just dramatic, but they also can have a strong emotional core. And that’s where I think television is at its best.”
Nash gave herself a “Rizzoli & Isles” crash course by watching the first and last episodes of each previous season, plus several others she randomly selected. “I’ve seen enough to know what works in the show, and the things that maybe worked a little bit less well,” she maintains. “The good news is it mostly did work, so you just come in and try to build on that.”
Alexander says “it definitely does” feel like a season of change for the series. She recalls that after Young’s death (confirmed by police as a suicide) last summer, “We filmed for maybe a week or two, then we took a week’s break, then we filmed another episode and all went our separate ways for about five months and grieved and did what we needed to do on our own. Then when we came back together, we had a new showrunner, so that was the second big change.
“It is still a great crime show,” adds “NCIS” alum Alexander, “and at the center of it is this wonderful friendship between Jane and Maura. When you lose one of your team members, though, the dynamics shift. That’s a natural thing, and we’ve had to adjust to that both in real life and as our characters on the show, revisiting these sets and places that were occupied by someone we really loved.”
The daughter-in-law of screen legend Sophia Loren, Alexander says the effects of Isles’ kiss with policeman Frankie Rizzoli (Jordan Bridges, son of CBS “The Millers” star Beau Bridges) will play out over time. “You are like a brother to me,” she tells him in the first new episode. “With really soft lips.”
“I don’t know if I could say it was something that was earned,” Alexander notes, “because it isn’t something that grew over each season. In the bomb episode last season, it was clear that Frankie was harboring this crush on Maura that was growing on his side, and she felt reluctant to enter into something with her best friend’s brother.
“That said, I feel there’s this kindred connection between them. There’s something really kind about Frankie, and that’s something new for Maura. She’s just been fraught with all these really bad guys, and his being so kind was enough for me to allow Maura the freedom to just be in that moment with him … not really thinking about what it meant or where it would go. I think they both make a mature decision about it.”
Maturity also rates high on another count as Isles supports Rizzoli through a surprise pregnancy, “just kind of helping her deal with the reality of the situation,” per Alexander. That yields its more amusing moments, as when Isles takes very evident pleasure in a cup of coffee she’s just steered Rizzoli away from. “I will kill you,” Rizzoli warns her.
“Jane’s not the kind of woman who’s just going to stop working and sit home and massage her belly with coconut oil,” Alexander acknowledges. “Jan Nash has a really wicked sense of humor, so I feel like that’s hitting an all-time classic place on the show. Maura is overthinking all the baby details and Jane is really not. It’s sophisticated and it’s smart, so we have a lot of really fun stuff.”