[18 June 2007]
TNT’s The Closer landed star Kyra Sedgwick a 2007 Golden Globe for Best Actress, and the honor is well-deserved. As Deputy Police Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, Sedgwick serves up a “complex” woman heroine. But instead of being narcissistic and weak like Ally McBeal and her offspring, this imperfect career woman is fully drawn. Her quirks don’t seem like cutesy window dressing covering the same old sexist stereotypes.
Yes, Chief Johnson is not-so-secretly addicted to chocolate. But she’s much more addicted to solving murder cases as a detective for her LAPD homicide team. Yes, she is caught up in love triangles [her paramour, FBI agent Fritz (Jon Tenney) moves in with her this season but her old flame, Chief Pope (J.K. Simmons) still pines away for her]. But she’s much more caught up in figuring out the psychology of killers, survivors, and people with self-destructive streaks. Yes, she has trouble getting along with her mom (Frances Sternhagen) when she comes to visit from Atlanta. But she has more trouble getting her cases off her mind.
The show is based on a fish out of water premise. Johnson has been recruited to L.A. from Atlanta by her former boss Pope, now the LAPD Chief. While in the first season of the show, she had to fight to earn the respect of her team and department (both because she is a woman and because she sports a Southern accent), this season, they work together like a well-oiled machine. While Sedgwick’s trademark “Thank Yew” is a bit too much of a caricature for this Southerner, what is more compelling is how Johnson insists on importing Southern manners even into the seediest back alleys and police interrogation rooms. The DVD extras include an enlightening making-of featurette that emphasizes the delight the series takes in the fish out of water juxtapositions.
But what is interesting about the premise is that she’s mashing up two value systems: polite Southern lady meets hardboiled LA detective. The joke is that these two identities are not as far apart as one might think. If you ever underestimate the little lady with the drawl because she seems so polite and kind, then you don’t know much about steel magnolias. They can kick your butt faster than you can blink—and they’ll smile sweetly while digging in the knife. Her streetwise colleagues at first find her incomprehensible, but gradually come to respect and love her. She gets enraged at people who break the law and harm others. She also gets infuriated when people have bad manners. Both are affronts to law and order, in her book.
The enemy this season is on the outside. One two-episode arc (with some directing by Sedgwick’s hubby, Kevin Bacon, making the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game even easier) follows Johnson as she does some work for the CIA, trying to uncover a terrorist cell. Not surprisingly, what she also uncovers is corruption among the ranks of the CIA. Other topical story lines include an episode about a woman who wants to charge surgeons with killing her son on the operating table. When it turns out that the surgeons did make an error and the hospital and medical establishment all try to cover it up together, Johnson and the woman share the same righteous anger. In another episode, Johnson must solve the case of a paparazzo who is murdered because he had pictures someone didn’t want seen. While Johnson and her colleagues at first find it hard not to see the camera bugs as parasites, they also eventually humanize them—though the episode does decry the degree to which ours is now a society of constant surveillance.
We’ve seen these kinds of stories before, but this series manages to make them new and fresh. The signature scene of each episode is always Johnson’s interrogation. When she gets key witnesses or evasive murderers in the room with her, she breaks them down through both her smarts and her humanity. She tries to understand them—what would motivate them to kill or to cover for their loved one, what kind of deep shame or human need are they trying to assuage in their warped behavior. Most seem secretly relieved that she catches them, for their own varied reasons. She slams chaos with reason, incoherence with logic, and everyone involved seems reassured by her virtuoso celebration of rationalism. But she also marshals emotion. She gives these perps a sense of deep listening and understanding. While the show is a bit psychobabbly in implying that that’s what most are really looking for (if only someone had understood them, they would not have become killers), the dramatic intensity of their exchanges with Johnson makes for compelling episodes. She cracks cases because she knows what makes cracked people tick.