'Rizzoli & Isles' Boss Previews Jane's New Foe, Frankie at Risk and a Trip to Los Angeles

Showrunner Jan Nash speaks with THR about the premiere's high stakes, starting the year with a clean slate and how long the TNT drama will run.
Eric McCandless

Rizzoli & Isles has a new lease on life in season six.

Unlike the season-five premiere, which had to deal with the ramifications of Jane's (Angie Harmon) pregnancy, Frankie (Jordan Bridges) and Maura's (Sasha Alexander) kiss, and the real-life death of star Lee Thompson Young (who played Frost), the season-five finale ended with no notable cliffhangers, allowing the writers a fresh launching pad for the new year.

"The writers were able to come in with a clean slate and say, 'What do we want to do this year with these characters? What are the interesting stories we want to tell?'" showrunner Jan Nash tells The Hollywood Reporter.

But things won't stay so tidy for long. In the season premiere, it appears Frankie shot an unarmed man, and the team must rally around him to clear his name.

Nash also spoke with THR about the duo's upcoming cross-country excursion, which storyline she wouldn't do again and more.

Since you chose to avoid a cliffhanger last season, did you have an idea of where you might be going this season? Or did you use the hiatus to take a step back and then brainstorm? 

We very consciously aimed at not having a cliffhanger last season. When we started talking about what we would do, and how we would end last season, we did start having very general conversations about, "What are the stories that can be told? What are the stories that really worked in the past? And is there a way we can recreate the emotional experience those stories created? How can we do that again?" When we looked at season six, there were some good and fun things that stood out. We had created a character last year for Korsak, Kiki, who was his life coach, and we really wanted to continue to play that out, because it was left open from last season. So we got the chance to say, "What do we want from Vince Korsak this year? What kind of woman is Kiki? What does this mean for him? How are we going to have this unfold?" We've gotten to write some, what we hope, are fun episodes for Bruce McGill, who is incredibly talented and delightful actor. 

Then with Jane Rizzoli, last year, we put a period at the end of a long sentence in terms of resolving a lot of her stories. We could look at it and go, "What stories have been really satisfying for this character in years' past? And are there things that we could do this year that would be interesting in similar ways?" One of the things that was very effective on the show before I got here was the Hoyt character, the serial killer who was coming after Jane. We've come up with a nemesis arc for Jane that will really span a fairly substantial part of the season — somebody who has decided that Jane is a problem that needs to be dealt with and will start acting out in a certain way that will grow increasingly more dire through the middle part of the season to the end of the season. It's been very fun to arc [it] out. 

This is a show that's had serialized elements throughout the years, and personal elements with the Maura Isles character and crime elements with Hoyt; we're leaning into that. Not to the exclusion of the week in, week out crime story, but giving an episode a richness. For the people who love the show — the audience has been with the show is very devoted — for those people, the serialized element is what makes it fun for them, because it's about our characters. The crime of the week works for people who like Rizzoli, but they may not come every week — the crime of the week will always be there for them to show up, have a mystery they can solve. We're trying to tell really interesting crime stories. People who like that stuff will have 18 really interesting crime stories they'll be able to enjoy, whether they're able to be completely interested in the serialized [elements].

Is that foe for Jane the big thematic thrust of the season?

Thematically, we had a very strong theme that ran through last season, which was dealing with loss through the love of your family and friends. This year, especially until you get to the gritty part of the season, it won't be quite as strong of a thematic link. I do think when you get to the end of the season, there will be a sense that the season did have some thematic elements that dealt with what is really important in our lives.

Eighteen episodes for a cable drama is fairly rare. How do you approach breaking them?

It's hard. Here we are in this world of cable where so many people come because of the shorter order than the exhausting network season, which who knows how many shows on network even do 22-24 episodes anymore. I was on Without a Trace for seven years, and we'd make 24 episodes a season, and by the time we got to the 24th episode, you were like, "What are these characters' names again?" You're just so tired you can't think about it. Eighteen isn't quite that many, but it is a lot. 

From my perspective, part of the challenge is to keep it interesting for 18 episodes. How do you keep it interesting, in particular, for these fine actors who have been embodying these characters for so long? This season, we're going to end up around the late 80s in terms of episodes. That's a long time to play the same character. The way you make it interesting for [everyone] is to do things you haven't done before. For instance, this year we have an episode where Jane and Maura come to L.A. The case dictates they come to L.A. to follow a lead. So after 80-odd episodes of shooting L.A. for Boston, we're going to shoot L.A. for L.A. We're going to be at the beach and run around and go to clubs, and whatever else we come up with. Doing something like that allows you to tell a story you wouldn't tell in a Boston environment and allows you to have your crew do things they wouldn't normally be doing. That becomes an exciting adventure for everybody. It allows you to give Jane Rizzoli a different attitude — she loves Boston ... what is Jane Rizzoli's attitude about L.A.? That gives Angie Harmon a different thing she hasn't played before. The nemesis arc we're building up to, we have to do it in a different way that doesn't feel like the Hoyt story. But when you give her something to push back against, that allows Angie to test different muscles. We're bringing in Maura's adoptive father, and we're putting in a long-standing conflict with the two of them, which allows Sasha to play something she's never played before. Making it interesting makes an 18-episode [season] easier to deal with.

One of the great things … is this show can have a lot of different colors. You can do an episode that's more comedic; you can do an episode that's more of a straight crime drama. It makes them feel different versus getting to the end of 18 and going, "I've done 18 episodes and they were all beige." Hopefully some feel beige and some feel yellow and some feel polka dot, so you feel you have a beautiful quilt.

What can you share about the premiere?

We really wanted to start with something where all of our characters were strongly, emotionally involved with what's happening onscreen. The family — and I don't just mean the Rizzolis, I mean this collection of characters — care about each other very, very deeply. That led us to a story where Frankie is at risk, and Frankie needs everyone to help him get out of the situation he finds himself in. The season premiere is a case where Frankie finds himself in professional danger, and everyone has to pitch in to save him. The stakes of that context hopefully feel very high; the characters all have a strong rooting interest in solving the mystery and helping Frankie. When you get to the end of it, hopefully, it's incredibly satisfying

Since you filmed the premiere episode, the examination of how police behave has really become a cultural conversation in a way it wasn't before. As you were writing the hour, what discussions were had about the balance to make sure you showed all sides?

We did write this and shoot this well before all of this blew up. And there is a risk that it will feel like we're telling a one-sided version of the story, because there's no one in the piece saying, "Frankie did a bad thing" versus just asking "Is it possible he made a mistake?" I can understand why some people might think we've erred on the side of being too gentle with Frankie, but we did this before all this came out in the news. There's no evidence in the course of Rizzoli & Isles to suggest these group of police officers and these people from the medical examiner's office are anything but good, hard-working, ethical people. So hopefully the audience will think the way we've treated this is consistent with who we know these characters to be. To be honest, if it was something someone came up with now, I'd say, "Let's not do it." If we were looking at the same thing now, it's such a difficult issue — people feel very strong about it for lots of really good reasons, on both sides, that it would be too controversial for this show. 

What has you excited about the season, beyond the premiere?

We've added an assistant medical examiner — Adam Sinclair is playing the part of Kent Drake. We wanted to fill out Maura Isles' world, and have some more people who could be in her world, and we could see her as someone who manages people. We really love [Sinclair] and the energy he brings to the show. There's an episode where we're going to a dog show. And we have a great episode involving a young boy who may or may not be a psychopath. We go to a body farm [for a case]. We have a lot of interesting mysteries, plus some really good and satisfying B-stories for all of these characters. Angela Rizzoli is going to get a boyfriend. We're going to learn a lot more about Nina Holiday, who is the character we brought in last year. We're doing Rizzoli & Isles and trying to flesh out things and characters we already know and love.

Is fleshing out Nina going to happen in one episode or will it be spread out?

It's going to be sprinkled throughout the season. Idara [Victor] is a series regular now, so we're going to be using her more, taking her out of the office a little bit, giving her free-standing stories, letting her intersect with the Rizzoli family a little more, building up her relationship with Frankie, Korsak and Jane, and making her more of a part of the team.

The show beautifully said goodbye to Frost last year, and there were small callbacks to him in various hours after that. Will that continue this year?

We feel like we told the story to the best of our abilities, and gave it the scope we wanted to give it in being fair to the memory of somebody who had been so important to this show. Some of the things we dealt with at the end of last season, like the figure that was on his desk that moved to Jane's desk, will remain there. His desk will be still empty. People will sit there, but no one will take the spot permanently. In a way that is more indistinct than overt, we'll continue to deal with his continued absence.

At this point in the show's run, do you have a feel for how long it should last?

That is not my decision. I came here late in the show's run, and I've tried to make it the best version I can. I know this year … we have had no trouble continuing to come up with stories for this group of characters. If the show did come back for another year, you'd be crossing through that storied 100th episode. Do I believe there are more stories to be told for these characters? I absolutely do. The question of what TNT and Warner Bros. and the actors decide, that's well above my pay grade. I just know if someone turned to me and asked, "Could you make more of these?" I'd say, "Yeah, sure, it's a great show." Great shows are hard to find.

Rizzoli & Isles airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on TNT.

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