‘Major Crimes’: Watching People Watching People

The sheer frustration of watching the nearly immobile Major Crimes is compounded by the glimmers it offers of alternative roles for women in primetime television.

Major Crimes enters the second half of Series Three awash, as usual, in saccharine and hackneyed storylines. A story of teen obsession turned violent slides into icky rom-com territory when Lieutenant Provenza (G. W. Bailey) asks the murderer’s grandmother out on a date. And through it all strides Captain Sharon Raydor, with Mary McDonnell turning in a performance so restrained she might as well not be there. In fact, she often isn’t, as more of the work in the field and in the office falls to her team.

Major Crimes‘ thematic targets are also the same as before. Again, the villains are LA’s rich and careless. When wealthy parents attend a couples’ retreat, leaving their troubled adolescent home alone and one of his school friends is murdered in their house, they draw the withering scorn of Raydor and the team. And the detectives take some delight in confronting a self-righteous mother with the salacious prurience of her college-aged son towards their under-aged, paid-in-cash maid.

In this and other plotlines, the show aims for topicality, even if other TV shows have got there before it. The mutual exploitation inherent in surrogacy for hire provides fodder for legal conundra, as well as melodrama, reminding us that the Law & Order franchise has drilled into the subject from several angles. In this case, three childless couples show sanctity worthy of the canonized after the murder of the surrogate each believed was carrying “their” child. Major Crimes throws together hefty dollops of self-conscious solemnity, afternoon talk show homilies and confessions, and anodyne sympathies for the underdog. The result is difficult for any actors, including the seasoned crew on hand, to make convincing.

Part of the problem lies in the show’s affection for these many actors. From the beginning, Major Crimes suffered from too many actors for too little action, as did its predecessor, The Closer. The cast photo for the show now squeezes in 12 recurring characters, and even Steve Bochco in his Hill Street Blues prime would have been struggling to craft meaningful dialogue for such a brood, especially when each episode is devoted to one, slow-moving case. As a result, too many scenes involve a lot of people standing around watching other people talking.

Even more absurd, some of the people are watching the other people watching the few actors with some action via a computer screen. The typical interrogation scene, for example, involves Raydor and a colleague closeted with a suspect, viewed by other colleagues looking at monitors, simultaneously viewed by other detectives standing in the background. As the viewer watches the watchers watch, the ramifications of pervasive surveillance might provide intellectual diversion, but also guarantee static drama.

Often, too, the sets in which many of these talk-fests take place are too small for the number of individuals in them, so they’re turned into the most boring shot-reaction-shot sequences moving in lockstep with the dialogue. In the squad room, the show’s most spacious set, as well as on locations, scenes follow this same pattern. A rare walking and talking sequence in the sewers of Los Angeles at the beginning of “Down the Drain” concludes once more with all the characters in the scene trading head shots while crammed against the grid which filters run off into the sea.

The sheer frustration of watching the nearly immobile Major Crimes is compounded by the glimmers it offers of alternative roles for women in primetime television. While the relationship between Raydor and her ward, Rusty (Graham Patrick Martin), is too frequently sentimentalized, their ongoing interaction highlights the ways in which increasing numbers of individuals (on television and not) are constructing families of choice, and find their emotional bonds bedeviled by legal procedures designed for a far different society.

At the same time, the show also challenges the primacy of active biological motherhood as the sine qua non of being female: it stands up, quite strikingly, for the single, the divorced, the widowed, and the wavering, and rarely frames “being alone” as a wearisome social or emotional deficit. In this the series recalls Major Crimes’ TNT stable mate, Rizzoli & Isles, where the eponymous friends and colleagues find their greatest security in the multi-generational, and primarily female, household of Rizzoli’s mother. In an alternative universe, these shows might have been the forward-looking descendants of Cagney & Lacey.

But in this universe, alas, such legacy is rendered lackluster, which leaves one profound question for the reviewer: why then does Major Crimes still pull some of TNT’s (and basic cable’s) biggest audiences? I think I have the answer. Major Crimes is the perfect example of an expanding entertainment genre, companion TV. You don’t need to think. You don’t, actually, even need to watch. It’s just pleasant noise in the background, while you do something much more worthwhile.

RATING 3 / 10
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