In Her Element
The Season Seven premiere of The Closer brings back the formula that has made the show one of the most popular on cable television. As before, Lt. Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) is navigating a bureaucratic police culture by means of her signature spunk and feminine know-how. Also as in previous seasons, the hurdles set up for her are low. Viewers who are easily annoyed by feminist platitudes and unrealistic cop procedurals will not miss anything by skipping it.
The episode centers around the murders of six people, gunned down at a famous hip-hop musician’s house party. We open with a forensic team snapping photos and combing for evidence on the scene, while a rap video plays loudly on a nearby TV. Johnson enters in a slow motion shot, the soundtrack providing a counterpoint to the primness of her appearance. She’s in her element, and quickly directs her team as to the specifics of the investigation. Surveying the room with a furrowed brow, she seems to feel every bullet as hit its target.
What follows shows how Johnson exploits and also struggles in this “element,” but the problem, as usual in The Closer, is that the cops’ experience here is more familiar than believable. The next scene is another staple in cop shows: Johnson and her team huddle around a dry-erase board with photos of the suspects taped up in a row. A briefcase with $125k seems to point to a drug deal gone wrong (one detective points out, “If gangs are involved, drugs are involved”). Johnson absorbs such observations, reassembling them into a theory of the crime. The other detectives seem helpless without her calm direction (another typical feature of the genre).
The opening sequence reinforces the series’ focus on Johnson’s ever precarious position. If Colombo was underestimated because of his frazzled demeanor, she’s misjudged—by colleagues, by criminals, even by friends—because she’s a woman. This undercurrent is made clear each week, as Johnson takes charge and solves cases, despite and because of her overtly “feminine” attributes, like her worry about whether to start a family with Fritz (Jon Tenney) or her emotional ups and downs.
The season premiere revisits another familiar source of tension, the talk of promotions. Again, Johnson distracted from the case at hand when Asst. Chief Will Pope (J.K Simmons) tells her she will be promoted, while he will be transferred horizontally to a much less desirable position. She’s drawn even farther from her team and their white board when she learns she is being cited in a legal suit against the department. In a previous case, she had released a gang member from custody who was murdered later that same day. The suit claims she knew the man in question would be killed and didn’t offer police protection. She shrugs off the accusation, more troubled by the involvement of one of the detectives liaising with the legal team. She confides her uneasiness to Cpt. Raydor (Mary McDonnell), seeming to miss the point that she’s currently under investigation for misconduct.
Johnson finds some solace at home, where she and Fritz are preoccupied by their respective jobs, yet clearly glad to be in each other’s company. We’re glad too, as the bedroom setting, where Sedgwick flosses her teeth in the bathroom mirror while delivering her lines, rings much truer than the cardboard cutout police station. Then comes a very disturbing exchange. FBI agent Fritz hands over an important file to Brenda, thereby simplifying her investigation and relieving her stress, after which she promptly rewards him with sex. This question has come up before in the series, but it remains troubling: the suggestion that women need men to fix their problems, and that sex should function as a bargaining chip in such assistance, flies in the face of Johnson’s characterization as a capable professional who wants to be taken seriously.
As usual, Johnson commands the most respect in the interrogation room, where she uses low expectations to her advantage. When, in this episode, she interviews a suspect, he sits glowering at her. As usual, she is untroubled by his defensive postures and his lamely urban lingo. Then she takes an unnecessary risk, setting into motion a turn of events that helps her investigation but throws her already sullied reputation into further disrepute. She is informed by a stolid-faced superior that if she wants to continue her career in the police, she’s going to have to stop all the shenanigans. She demurely flashes a “Who me?” look at him, another behavior we’ve come to expect.
Such interactions reinforce the idea that Johnson mirrors working women’s everyday hassles, in a slightly exotic setting. But this setting is both too familiar from other cop shows and too often made incidental to Johnson’s other concerns. While she is plainly exceptional at what she does, The Closer doesn’t create a world around her that’s credible or even very compelling.
Johnson isn’t alone in this TV world, of course. But Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes and Emily Deschanel’s Bones seem like they belong in their versions of it, as did Cagney and Lacey and The Wire‘s Lt. Greggs (Sonja Sohn). The balance Johnson works so hard to maintain is one of femininity and toughness. But she could just as easily be Teacher Brenda Johnson, or Business Executive Brenda Johnson. What would be an admirable message suffers for a lack of nuance.