When Wallace Stevens told us in his "Sunday Morning" poem that "death is the mother of beauty," he couldn't have been thinking about Jill Hennessy because she hadn't even been born yet, much less come back from assistant district attorney Claire Kincaid's fiery demise in an auto accident on Law & Order several seasons ago to be born again as Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, a medical examiner who interrogates corpses in a Boston morgue on Crossing Jordan, the first smart dramatic series of the new television season. But Stevens, the only American poet ever to have made a career as an insurance agent, obviously anticipated something peculiar. Medical examiners are the new supermodels.
I'm just guessing -- I could be wrong; maybe the idea is as old as Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, in which the Poet encountered the Princess of Death behind an escort of Nazi leather-boy bikers -- that this phenomenon got its start with Patricia Cornwall's best-selling murder mysteries. Which then inspired the brief appearance, in black leather, of Michelle Forbes as the M.E. on Homicide, who blew into town just long enough to sleep with half the detectives in Baltimore before roaring away from the corrupt politics of the state of Maryland. Meanwhile, from British television, A&E imported the Silent Witness series, with M.E. Amanda Burton as an equally stunning embodiment of erotic braininess and morbid sex. Include as well my favorite forensic scientist on C.S.I., Marg Helgenberger. And now Hennessy -- so buttoned up and so ladylike as Claire; so over the top and Celtic witchy as Jordan. Not one of these people looks in the least like Jack Klugman's Quincy.
Anyway, Jill's Jordan is a revelation. Because her mother was murdered when she was a child, and her ex-cop father (Ken Howard) still sits dough-faced in his Boston kitchen obsessing about the unsolved case, she has anger-management issues. These, plus perhaps her SoHo-beatnik dressing habits, account for a spotty employment record. She seems determined to wring either secrets or a confession out of the obtuse living and the helpless dead. When we first meet her, she has just been fired from a job in Los Angeles for kicking her boss "in the cojones." Because of a sudden vacancy and the abiding vagaries of its administrator, Miguel Ferrer, the Boston office where she began her career is willing to give her another chance.
A moment, please, to appreciate Ferrer while we're celebrating Hennessy. If Jill enjoys her liberation from the straitjacket of Dick Wolf's Law & Order formula (and she surely seems to, with a mad abandon), so should Miguel be grateful for his best part in series television since Twin Peaks. While she acts out, he acts in. He is imploding from a job he hates: "What I do for a living is disgusting," he tells an audience of shocked students. But he will be, if not redeemed, at least consoled by an astonishing rainbow cloud of butterflies, inside his very own morgue. Though there is a rational explanation for these butterflies, they seem to him, and to us, miraculous and surreal, dreamed up by Salman Rushdie or Gabriel García Márquez. It's a terrific scene.
But black-Irish Jill must still run roughshod over everybody to solve the mystery of the murdered teenage prostitute who turns out instead to have been a Catholic-schoolgirl virgin. And while Father Ken is full of advice, she is not getting the professional help she needs from Boston police detective Kyle Secor, who -- if you happen to be into postmodern media cross-referencing -- was one of the Baltimore police detectives Michelle Forbes slept with on Homicide. You'll also notice that Ravi Kapoor, as forensic entomologist Mahesh "Bug" Vijayaraghavensatyanamurthy, has migrated across network borders from ABC's Gideon's Crossing, as if all medical shows with "Crossing" in their titles were the same. Plus, Crossing Jordan executive producer Tim Kring cut his teeth on Providence, in which another thirtysomething single-woman doctor went home to New England to live with a widowed father. Except this time, unlike Melina Kanakaredes, Jill Hennessy is not a goody-goody. She is, instead, a wicked wow.
The Mind of the Married Man (September 11, 10 to 10:30 p.m.; Sundays thereafter, 10 to 10:30 p.m.; HBO), starring stand-up comic Mike Binder as a Chicago newspaper reporter who is all the time thinking about other women even though he's married to the truly nifty Sonya Walger, wants to be Sex and the Second City, as seen through the dread Male Gaze. Surprisingly, for premium cable, oral and anal sex are a lot more blabbed about than graphically visualized. I've seen only the first three episodes, but so far it's puerile.
Chain Camera (September 12; 7 to 8:30 p.m.; Cinemax) is what happens after documentarian Kirby Dick has given video cameras to ten L.A. high-school students, one week each, then another ten, and so on for a whole school year, and then edited 700 hours down into sixteen self-portraits of mostly anxious teenagers, a sort of United Nations of unhappiness, thinking out loud about fathers, sex, race, politics, drugs, and music. No wonder Kurt Cobain checked out.
Ratrap (September 12; 9 to 10 p.m.; Court TV) is yet another "reality program," this one from England, in which producers have trained small hidden cameras and other electronic surveillance equipment on such public places as stores, bus stops, and train stations, to educate the public on how baddies go about stealing wallets, bikes, and luggage. Along with scenes of petty theft, there are tips on protecting yourself. A welcome relief from the self-importance of Cops.
The Ellen Show (September 17, 9:30 to 10 p.m.; Fridays thereafter, 8 to 8:30 p.m.; CBS) brings back Ellen DeGeneres from all the lousy publicity to a by-the-numbers sitcom in which she returns to her slowpoke hometown to be celebrated, on "Ellen Day," as a dot-com megabucks entrepreneur, only to go bust instead and decide to stay on as a guidance counselor at her old high school. So, ho-hum, she's gay. It doesn't bother her mother, Cloris Leachman; her younger sister, Emily Rutherfurd; her former teacher and now principal, Martin Mull; her onetime prom date, Jim Gaffigan; or the other lesbian in town, gym teacher (!) Diane Delano, whom I remember fondly as the tough cop on Northern Exposure who dallied with ex-astronaut Maurice. Comfortable veterans, all of them. And so are the jokes about clay ashtrays, Tom Hanks, and Ed Asner. Old-shoe, too, as if Mayberry were an erogenous zone.
Mondays starting September 17; 10 to 11 p.m.; NBC.