[13 August 2012]
The last season of The Closer has been exploring the internal and external politics of contemporary policing, as well as the rights of defendants under law. Deputy Chief Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) faced investigation of her culpability in the death of a gang member, as well as for her obsessive pursuit of murder suspect, Phillip Stroh (Billy Burke). Challenges from external lawsuits, the LAPD’s own internal affairs department, and a belt-cinching, image-conscious LAPD senior administration hobbled Major Crimes’ detectives in their struggle to catch and convict the city’s most lethal criminals.
The Closer‘s turn to the technicalities of the deal enacts something of the reality of the capture and prosecution of criminals in the US, where a majority of cases end in a plea bargain. It also showcases the conservative turn in law enforcement discernible since the late 1980s, and echoed across primetime screens ever since. Night after night, beleaguered police and prosecutors barely hold back a tsunami of wrongdoing, thwarted at every turn by defense attorneys, judges, and the provisions of law itself. While the compromise of the deal has played a consistent role in law enforcement shows, none has framed it as the sine qua non of criminal procedure quite so blatantly as the finalé of The Closer and the opening episodes of its continuation,Major Crimes, both premiering on 13 August.
The finalé and premiere really operate as a two-parter, where the last vestiges of intuition, flair, and imagination as the key to cracking a crime disappear with a bang, when Johnson exits the LAPD, and Captain Raydor (Mary McDonnell) assumes command of the largely intact squad of elite detectives. She is determined to increase its conviction rate and cut its notoriety, using whatever means she deems necessary.
The first episode of Major Crimes unrolls as a sharp-witted, if heavily slanted, debate on exactly how the LAPD, and by extension, US society, should treat its most heinous criminals. Should they face an expensive public trial, with its guaranteed right to a judgment of their peers, with the attendant risk of a hung jury or an innocent verdict? Or should the police and the district attorneys get them behind bars, as fast as possible, at minimal cost, even if the tradeoff for speed is a lesser punishment, or the risk of intimidating an innocent person into a deal?
Major Crimes displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of its predecessor, not surprisingly, since it comes from the same production team, and features almost the same cast. On the plus side, it showcases a highly intelligent and skilled woman, who acts fast and thinks faster, and can lead, as well as manage, a hostile team of more experienced subordinates. When one of the detectives lashes out at Raydor, because her rewriting of the procedure for an officer-involved shooting has led directly to the death of a robbery-homicide suspect, she reacts neither defensively nor aggressively. Instead, she cuts directly to the question that no one on the team has thought to ask: how did the person who shot the suspect know that, out of all the police departments in the United States, the LAPD was the only one that kept everyone, even suspects, on the scene of an officer-involved shooting?
McDonnell begins her series already framed as the anti-Deputy Chief Johnson. Now she grapples with what Johnson leaves behind. Struggling with the department’s new policies and his new boss, Lieutenant Provenza (G. W Bailey) mutters, half to his chest, and half to Lt. Flynn (Tony Denison), “I’m dealing with the worst the world has to offer without being in charge.” Baffled, Flynn counters that he hasn’t been in charge for the last eight years either. “Now I’m mad about it.” Provenza bulls back, stomping away from the camera. In one short exchange, the actors capture Provenza’s thwarted personal loyalty, his philosophical discontent, and his recognition that, close to retirement, either he has to accept the changes or abandon his job.
Those changes don’t apply to the show’s formula, however. Like The Closer, Major Crimes offers utterly predictable crime-solving. The premiere plot involves recent war veterans who met in rehab and play online first-person shooters; the fact that the rookie on the squad almost single-handedly solves the case in three sentences sums up the show’s inability to craft thought-provoking mysteries on which to hang the interactions of the squad and broader questions of law enforcement. In both The Closer and Major Crimes, too many detectives chase too few clues, which precipitates far too many scenes of too many people standing around. Here, that entourage consists of Johnson’s team as well as a couple of newbies, including rookie detective Amy Sykes (Kearran Giovanni).
As the squad members do their work—or watch Raydor do hers—viewers observe, again, the show’s attitudes towards that work. While the final season of The Closer and the opening of Major Crimes raise legitimate questions about costs and tactics, neither show moves beyond black and white answers. Either Deputy Chief Johnson’s way is right, or Captain Raydor’s way is right. Murderers who face the death penalty should either be given an expensive trial or be gotten off the streets at any cost. No one suggests, for example, that abolishing the death penalty would cut the costs of trials more than any other policy. Neither does anyone point out that in forcing citizens into deals, the legal administration is respecting every right of the accused except perhaps the most important one, the right to trial. Provenza, the most acerbic critic of Raydor’s deal-at-all-costs policy, is horrified by the humiliation of Major Crimes, which shouldn’t “negotiate with murderers.”
If the focus on the trial in shows like Law & Order misrepresented the number of crimes that actually reach a trial, it also underscored the right to that trial. Major Crimes, on the other hand, argues that once an individual is in custody, there’s no way out. Its focus on the deal, and the squad’s prosecution rate, fosters cynicism about the lack of individual power vis-à-vis the law and degrades law as a source of justice. The accused is no longer a citizen, but an administrative inconvenience who needs to be disposed of as quickly as possible. It’s not the most comforting message on a muggy Monday evening in August.