Drinking the Kool-Aid
The first season of Major Crimes, TNT’s follow-on to The Closer, averaged nearly seven million viewers and rated, in September 2012, as basic cable’s number one new show. Not surprisingly, the network ordered a second season, and increased the number of episodes commissioned from 15 to 19. The new series premieres on 10 June with an episode so glacial that one has to ask: why are viewers so avidly watching yet another series where the supporting cast spends most of its time watching the lead character work?
The dramatic push of the first season concerned Captain Raydor’s (Mary McDonnell) attempt to win the investigative team she inherited over to her philosophy of police work. Instead of securing confessions to support successful prosecutions in court, as her predecessor Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) had done, she wanted to solidify deals, and incarcerate the guilty without recourse to a trial. The approach was very Fordian, very capitalist, very 21st century, a plan to co-opt citizens to surrender voluntarily their rights, get them off the streets, and save the city of LA a lot of money. The debates on the morality of this method enlivened Major Crimes’ initial run, but Raydor proved so compelling in her indoctrination that by the end of it, even grouchy, old-school Lieutenant Provenza (G. W. Bailey) had drunk the Kool-Aid.
In an attempt to reactivate the debate, this season introduces youth, beauty, and calamitous acting into the show, via Deputy DA Emma Rios (Nadine Velazquez), who wants arrests, not deals. As a pout-and-flounce foil to Raydor’s icy control, Rios never has a chance. Raydor delivers all the sassiest lines, leaving Velazquez stranded with neither dialogue to deliver nor action to take. Velazquez, who doesn’t help herself when she falls back on an expressionist sitcom style of overacting, still deserves more than a regular pasting in an unforgiving straw-woman role. And so it’s a relief when she, too, accepts Raydor’s version of policing and prosecution by the close of the episode.
Raydor’s fostering of Rusty (Graham Patrick Martin), a key, under-age witness in the prosecution of a serial killer, indicates just how gratuitously the odds are stacked against Rios. She raises the legitimate fear that leaving the prosecution’s central witness with the captain who led the investigation against the accused would open the DA’s office to accusations of coercion and offer grounds for appeal against any conviction. Instead of opening what could have been a fascinating, and long-running, exploration of the legal implications of Raydor’s kindness to Rusty, the show frames the objections as Rios’ vindictive personal attack against Raydor. As such, it only needs to be defused on personal terms, when Rusty demonstrates his own good faith.
This shying away from meaty storylines typifies the longstanding weakness of Major Crimes and, to a certain extent, The Closer before it. Another potential problem comes up in this season opener when an egotistical serial monogamist and Hollywood blockbuster director finds his third wife fatally stabbed and floating in his swimming pool. Somehow, Los Angeles is so bereft of crime that one captain, two senior lieutenants, and three detectives can all work the case. Not only does this precipitate a lot of the usual standing around and watching, it also means that the scriptwriters have to eke out among six actors dialogue that might have kept two characters chatting desultorily. It doesn’t have to mean, but it does, that key points in the solution of the soi-disant mystery only occur through the profound stupidity of the suspects, in this case involving the director left alone with a cell phone while in the Major Crimes squad room where he can be overheard. When the suspects are so inept, they do the squad’s work for them.
As the team has little to do on the job, the episode fills out the time with minor whiffs of narrative. Provenza keeps boasting about his award for being the only member of his police academy class still on the job. Rusty learns to “be a man” and “do what he has to do” with the help of Provenza and Raydor. And we’re all waiting for the arrival of Tom Berenger as Raydor’s estranged husband in July’s episodes. Or maybe we’re not: once a hotshot lawyer, he has indulged in so much boozing and gambling that he’s now a jobbing court-appointed lawyer, ready to reconcile with his ex. As Berenger is slated to appear in only three episodes, there really isn’t much “will they, won’t they” tension attached to the prospect of his reunion with Raydor.
From this perspective, Major Crimes seems just one more instance of the proliferation of meaningless pabulum across the cable universe where the only discernible value seems to be the reassuring reappearance of the same old faces doing the same old things at the same old times every week. Is such predictability a kind of finger in the dike of existential angst, perhaps, where undemanding fictional order offers a refuge from economic uncertainty and permanent political gridlock in the US? If it is, we viewers are a pathetic lot, when even our voyeuristic wish fulfillment can’t rise above the second-rate.