[15 July 2008]
The first thing you have to know about Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson is that she’ll do anything to get her confession. She’ll lie. She’ll flirt. She’ll pretend to be your first. She’ll threaten. She’ll lean way over your way with her considerable cleavage showing, and pretend to be far dumber than she is. She’ll even tell you that your little brother has been murdered – she’ll do this right in front of her parents, her fiancé and two of her colleagues—when if fact that little brother is fine and asking about you every ten minutes.
Johnson, as Kyra Sedwick portrays her, is a bundle of conflicting energies, deeply committed to what she sees as right, but willing to do all kinds of morally questionable things to get there. She is moral without being especially trustworthy, truthseeking but not terribly truthful, and though she seems to care, more or less, about the people around her, she will toss them over the side anytime, anywhere, if it gets her closer to catching the criminal.
It’s kind of a strange part for a Hollywood beauty to be playing, when you think about it.
Add in a thick (and indeterminant) southern accent, a middle American taste for sweater sets, the brightest, reddest lipstick available at the JC Penney’s counter, and a penchant for ladylike “Thank yews!” as she dispatches officers to the morgue or the crime scene, and you’ve got America’s first post-feminist crime star. In this role Sedwick presides over the most successful scripted series on cable TV, viewed in this third season by more than nine million people.
For her trouble, Sedwick has been nominated for two Emmys, three Screen Actors Guild Awards and in 2007, she won a Golden Globe. Her fan site, clearly dominated by women, catalogues hundreds of messages on where to find the purses her character uses and what would happen if love interest Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) left the show. You get the sense that Sedwick, like her interrogator character, has found the magic combination of common sense, toughness, charm and vulnerability to gain the trust of the vast middle class female audience that follows her. (Her diagnosis with “early onset menopause” in the “Manhunt” episode seems like a blatant attempt to bond with them.)
This third season of The Closer, however, is not all about Brenda Leigh Johnson, but rather makes effective use of the full ensemble. Corey Reynolds as the lanky, stylishly cool Detective Sergeant Gabriel gets a chance to stretch as he is torn by his admiration for an activist inner city priest and his professional commitment to solving a long-dormant case. Later, in “Ruby”, he is pushed to the brink by a racist child molester and jeopardizes his career by beating the suspect.
Detective Lieutenants Provenza and Flynn are played mostly for laughs, but it is a tough, knowing kind of humor that seems entirely consistent with their grim jobs. And J.K. Simmons (lately the father in the wonderful Juno) adds subtlety, cunning and warmth to every scene he’s in as the budget obsessed bureaucrat, boss, and old flame to Johnson.
The third season also brings Johnson’s personal life to the forefront in subplots involving her health, her relationship with her fiancé Fritz and their endless, conflicted search for a house that will accommodate both of them. Her parents, especially in the double-length Christmas special, also add dimensions to Johnson’s character. You can’t watch her, with her southern belle wardrobe and manners, and help wondering how the heck someone like her got into the corpse business. Her prickly, manipulative, but nonetheless loving relationship with her parents goes a long way towards explaining that – she must have been fighting expectations pretty much from birth.
Moreover, these side plots keep Sedwick’s character from becoming a one-dimensional career obsessive. Even when she ignores or abuses her parents (at one point, she herds them onto a Chinese-language bus tour of LA to give her time to interview a suspect), the fact that they love her makes her a lot more human. And her relationship with Fritz also provides much-needed warmth, though she gets away with a lot more than most working women do, in terms of putting her job first. (She is always missing house viewing appointments, for one thing.)
The Closer’s episodes open with graphic shots of murder victims, often shot in grainy video for court evidence. Later scenes can also be bloody, even shocking. This is not a show that glamorizes violence. Yet neither does it have the somberness of Law and Order: SUV or the Prime Suspect series (which Sedwick reportedly studied closely before joining the cast.
The best shows in the series – “Saving Face”, for instance – are leavened with broad humor. A naked woman’s corpse rolls out of a dropped policeman’s casket, as the show opens. (Provenza’s observation: Provenza “Wow, looks like you can take it with you.”) When it becomes clear that investigation at the site may delay an elaborate wedding, the bride attacks Deputy Chief Johnson and the tussle is recorded on camera phone. As Assistant Chief Pope itemizes the damages later, in perhaps the best line of the third season, “You shut down a church and a funeral home. You arrested a bride…and congratulations, you’ve just become the most downloaded fully clothed woman on the Internet.”
The story lines occasionally seem far-fetched. The very first episode hinges on bigamy, while the finalé, with its cross-country holiday RV trip complete with murder suspect, seems unlikely, at the very least. Other episodes seem inspired by an LA for Dummies handbook. Gang wars, Chinatown sex slaves, homeland security follies (the entire crew spends most of one episode in hazmat suits), and plastic surgery all figure in one or more segments. And yet, you never get an indelible sense of place, the London of Prime Suspect, the New York City of Law and Order…perhaps because LA is such a plastic sort of town.
The bonus features on this four-disc set are mostly unremarkable – a not-very-funny gag real, a series of deleted scenes. The best by far is a short documentary called The Art of Interrogation, which blends commentary from legal experts with scenes from the series. You see Deputy Chief Johnson leaning in over a suspect, and the talking heads remark on breaking into a suspect’s comfort zone. They show clips of her lying to suspects, and the experts debate whether it is prudent to lie in the interrogation room. What hits you immediately is that all these experts (one of them is a woman) are far less glamorous and fascinating than the star of The Closer. Who knows, maybe the crime rate would plummet if our real police force was just better looking.