[11 October 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I wanna be a mommy and I wanna work. I want everything.
—Annabeth (Jennifer Finnigan), “Pilot”
Violence and oppression are everywhere in Close to Home. And that “everywhere” is specific—the burbs, outfitted with lawns and driveways and pretty white houses with no bars on the windows. The first episode of the new CBS series began with a sort of tone poem comparing the ideal and the danger of the domestic sphere, courtesy of Tomb Raider director Simon West. As the soundtrack grows ominous, new mom Annabeth (Jennifer Finnigan) cuddled and splashed her baby, down the street, sirens sounded. A fast-building fire raged, burning down a home and bringing out the slow-motioned firemen, one going so far as to roar in slow-audio, “Weee gawwwwt peeeeple in therrrrre!” And so the heroic, faceless public servants rush in, dragging frightened kids out of the basement.
The shape and point of these dramatic couple of minutes are hardly standard for network tv, where most times, the city is the site of trauma and the suburbs where everybody loves their well-intentioned patriarchs. But in the Indiana burbs of the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Close to Home, something like evil lurks perpetually. And not just in the form of accidental fires or scary sirens down the block. As soon as Annabeth gets back to work as a prosecutor, she faces several immediate, related, and expanding problems. First, the office, headed by Steve (John Carroll Lynch), is not prepared for new-mommyism (she needs a fridge in her own office, to keep her expressed breast milk chilled).
What’s more, the promotion Annabeth hoped to win has been granted in her 12 weeks’ absence to Maureen (Kimberly Elise, far too fierce and compelling to be working a supporting role here). Now the women’s implied incipient rivalry has blossomed into full-blown resentment, coming to a head in the ladies room (where else?), as Annabeth, garbing a moment to talk to husband Jack (Christian Kane) on her cell, complains about the “suck-up” Maureen. She hangs up, starts to cry, and whoops, flush. Maureen’s been in a stall and heard the whole thing. Annabeth feebly explains her bad behavior: “It was the hormones talking,” she blubs. Maureen plays nice: “Anything you and your hormones want to talk about, I’m all ears.” In the meantime, comes the implication, work would be a good focus.
And work at the moment involves Molly (Bonnie Root), the woman who apparently set the roaring fire that opened the episode. At first Annabeth’s assigned to prosecute Molly for trying to kill herself and her two kids, all locked inside the house (“Daddy went to work, mommy played with matches,” snarks Detective Lou Drummer [Barry Shabaka Henley]). That is, Molly is the ultimate bad mom, Andrea Yates by way of Carrie. But when Annabeth interviews her, she learns of “extenuating circumstances,” namely, Molly and the kids were imprisoned and abused by the husband, Kurt (Rick Peters). According to Molly, he’s kept them locked in the house, windows nailed and doors bolted, with phones ripped out, for two years. And her mom, friends, and the kids’ former teachers never bothered to find out what was going on.
Once Annabeth is on the case, however, the details become clear—unbreakable plexiglass windows, a “state of the art security system,” and locks (“keyed on both sides, same kinda lock you use in a jail”), even collars and chains in the basement. Even with this material evidence, the case appears to favor the husband: with a wealthy mom and expensive, provocatively named lawyer, Hellman (Bruce Davison), Kurt looks like he’s going to be one of those Law & Order: CI villains, pushed by clever investigation and interrogation to the point of breakdown by episode’s end. But this is Girl World, suburban and grown up (sort of). And Annabeth, though she loves her good-dad, supportive, Joe Dubois-like husband, lives in a world where most men just don’t get it, because they don’t have to. As she puts it, “The creeps don’t scare me, it’s the so called decent guys. You know, the ones who go to church and join the rotary club while they hide in plain sight. They’re the ones who scare me.” The evil in this world is a function of gender privilege, but that doesn’t mean women are blameless. If Annabeth and Molly are great moms, Kurt’s mother has created a monster, the son who lives and breathes and replicates all inequities that ground patriarchy.
That’s not to say the series means only to demonize men (though this week’s episode also features an abusive male), but that it means to focus on women’s struggles, individual and collective. To do that, it’s married the procedural to melodrama, with occasionally intriguing results, primarily having to do with Annabeth and Maureen’s simmering, self-containing, all-unspoken-realities exchanges. When Annabeth finds out that Molly’s declined to be deposed following harassment by Kurt, Maureen tells her to give up the case, because “it’s turned into a dog.” Suddenly adolescent-sounding Annabeth protests, “It’s not a total dog, I’ve got alternate strategies.” And Maureen fires back, “It’s got four legs, it’s hairy, it stinks, and this one ain’t even housebroken.”
Though the dialogue depends on that tv truism that when black women get mad, they use “ain’t,” Elise is actually incredible here. Her performance is measured for the small screen, not outsized in any way, and yet, Maureen’s complexities are suddenly laid wide open, in 30-some seconds. Admonishing her girl that she’s got to “stop making decisions with your hormones or your emotions or whatever else it is you’re not thinking with, and start thinking like a prosecutor again,” Maureen is so plainly conflicted, so plainly not the enemy that Annabeth sees in this instant (“I made a choice to have a family and you made a choice to make this career your family. I don’t judge you for that and don’t you dare judge me!”). And so you won’t be surprised, as big-eyed Annabeth is at episode’s end, to learn that Maureen “know[s] from experience” it’s hard to be a working mother.
Annabeth’s surprise and sudden self-reevaluation—again, all registered in mere seconds on screen—sets up for the inevitable partnership between Maureen and Annabeth. And so the episode introduces a thematic tidiness into all its melodramatic excesses: intragender competition only replicates the broader, seemingly unbeatable system. That troubling “dog” exchange abruptly has another context, when Molly’s young son speaks on the witness stand. Recalling what his dad said as he dragged her to the basement, the child says, “Daddy says when a dog misbehaves, you’ve got to chain the bitch up.” It’s a sensational, big courtroom moment, to be sure, and chilling. Now let’s get back to Girl World, and Maureen’s quieter effects.