Milestone: 'Crossing Jordan'

5:00 AM PST 05/05/2006 by Ray Richmond, AP

In reaching the 100-episode mark, 'Crossing Jordan' has made millions of the living take notice of the dead.

There's something to be said for never being the "it" show of the moment. Rare is the long-running program that somehow bolts straight from the gate to No. 1 and manages to last 100 episodes. And in the case of NBC's "Crossing Jordan," which airs its 100th episode (and Season 5 finale) on May 7, the maxim rings true. The crime drama starring Jill Hennessy as feisty and mercurial Boston medical examiner Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh has never gotten the respect, recognition or awards it deserves -- and these days, it stands even more obscured in the colossal shadow of the hit its been airing opposite on Sunday nights this season: ABC's white-hot "Grey's Anatomy."

"I definitely feel as though we've never gotten our due," admits Hennessy, who first came to NBC viewers' attention in the mid-1990s as green assistant district attorney Claire Kincaid on fellow NBC procedural (and NBC Universal Television Studio stablemate) "Law & Order."

She adds, "Our acting ensemble has never been acknowledged, and we've got some of the best performers on TV. Our writing, too, is very unique. The thing is, we started out our first year as the No. 1 new drama in the Nielsens. We got incredible reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post out of the box. But then, I guess we didn't maintain the cool factor. We're sort of like the forgotten, high-achieving sibling. Not that I'm really complaining."

In its first four seasons, "Jordan" has not received a single Emmy, Golden Globe, Directors Guild of America or Writers Guild award nomination, a trend expected to continue during the current Season 5. Yet, ratings remain consistent despite a small drop this year: With the key demographic of adults ages 18-49, "Jordan" averaged a 5.0 rating and 13 share in its first season (2001-02), a 4.0/10 in its second, a 4.5/12 in its third, a 4.0/10 in Season 4, and this season through April 9, a 3.3/8. Its total viewer average has ranged from 10.6 million-12.8 million weekly. To average 10.9 million viewers, as the show has this season against "Anatomy," is itself noteworthy.

"Jordan" simply survives -- and does it very well.

By contrast, ABC's "Alias" -- another hour with a strong female lead in Jennifer Garner -- also premiered in the fall of 2001 and was immediately embraced as hip.

"Yeah, we've never been as buzzworthy as they were," admits "Jordan" creator and executive producer Tim Kring. "But we've always had a little bit larger audience than they have. Our following has always been very solid and loyal. We've done extremely well while competing with other forensic shows, like (CBS's) 'CSIs' and (Fox's) 'Bones.'"

And the audience continues to find "Jordan" despite a hiccuping schedule that included a delayed third season return (Hennessy was pregnant) and five weeks off the air during the 2006 Olympic Games. "The audience has been there through thick and thin," Hennessy points out. "That core group that always manages to find us and tune in has fed us all."

That "Jordan" is still doing a decent number against its buzzed-about competition has particularly impressed NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly.

"This is obviously a show that can perform no matter when you put it on or where you put it," he says. "You don't have too many established programs you can keep around and plug in to fill a hole. That's why ... we're bringing 'Crossing Jordan' back, possibly at midseason. It's a valuable property to keep around."

Clearly, it also doesn't hurt that "Jordan" is produced by NBC Universal; its in-house pedigree makes the annual decision to bring it back a little bit easier.

Part of the series' success no doubt lies in its ability to run without putting its titular character on the main stage during every episode. From day one, "Jordan" has emphasized personality and character, giving its supporting cast -- which includes Miguel Ferrer as Jordan's boss Dr. Garret Macy, Kathryn Hahn as grief counselor Lily Lebowski, Ravi Kapoor as the colorfully named Dr. Mahesh "Bug" Vijayaraghavensatanaryanamurthy, Steve Valentine as British criminologist Dr. Nigel Townsend, Jerry O'Connell as Detective Woody Hoyt and recent addition Leslie Bibb as Boston Police Department psychologist Tallulah "Lu" Simmons -- significant play along the way.

"Because the procedural show has finally ceased to stand as the be-all and end-all, we've been able to go even deeper into exploring everyone's characters this season, with big, sort of personal story arcs," says Kring, who hopes to make NBC's schedule next fall with his new drama "Heroes." "The rise of successful serialized dramas like (Fox's) '24' (and ABC's) 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Lost' has helped us by showing the appetite viewers have to participate in a more ongoing story line with the characters. But our show has always emphasized character more than have others in our genre, I think."

Of course, the show is called "Crossing Jordan," not "Crossing Jordan and Her Co-Workers," which means the real star pressure is on Hennessy.

Says Reilly, "Jill is a captivating star and a great face of our network. I know it sounds corny and repetitive, but this show really has a very happy set. It's just an A+ unit. That in itself fuels the decision to bring it back."

Co-star O'Connell made his Hollywood mark 20 years ago in the feature film "Stand by Me," but he says he matured as a performer on "Jordan" (where he signed on for regular duty in the third season).

"Being able to play Woody -- this nerdy guy from Wisconsin who slowly starts to become cool -- has taken my acting to a whole new level," O'Connell says. "I've been able to evolve from someone who mats his hair down and wears jackets three inches too short in the arms to Jordan's love interest."

Industry veteran Ferrer, who has been acting in television and film for a quarter of a century, says he is "enormously fortunate" to have a job on the same series for five years with fellow castmates who "all genuinely still like one another." He adds, "For the most part, working on 'Crossing Jordan' has been an utterly joyful experience."

From Ferrer's point of view, the only thing that would improve the situation would be the ability to utter some vulgarity here and there. "I feel like I act better when I'm able to use profanity," he admits. "It'd be nice to throw in a little f-word here and there. But honestly, I'm just happy at this point of my life to be making a TV show every week that I don't cringe at, that I'm proud to show my friends and family. Flying somewhat under the radar is fine by me."

As for being NBC's stalwart, stick-it-anywhere show, Kring believes "Jordan" has survived precisely because it hasn't flown above the media radar. "To a large degree, when it comes to dealing with the network and studio, it's better to suffer benign neglect than to constantly be the object of their focus," he says. "Everybody always wants the big hit, but the solid performer like us is something every network needs to shore up their schedule."

And the show hasn't always lingered in the background. "Jordan" joined up with fellow NBC drama "Las Vegas" for a pair of steamy crossover episodes, helping to keep it visible and relevant, according to Kring. "They were very difficult to write and produce," he says. "But the ratings were terrific."

Hennessy would love for her show to garner more respect both from critics and from voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., but she'll happily take a show that's reached 100 episodes in a time of such widespread audience fragmentation and increasingly fickle viewer tastes.

"You make a pilot, and it's like a wing and a prayer just to make in onto the air," Hennessy says. "To have a job in TV on a show that has so much dignity to it, so much heart and warmth, well, it doesn't get any better than this for an actor. We should all be over the moon to be a part of this. I know I am."
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