She’s sold her house, survived an ethics inquiry at the Atlanta PD, and turned down a job with Homeland Security. She’s a stranger to La-La Land who has chosen to work for the former lover who tossed her aside to marry his second wife. And she’s been promoted way above some long-serving LAPD detectives. Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick), newly appointed head of the Priority Murder Squad, is feisty, fallible, and ambitious, and strides so aggressively onto her first Los Angeles crime scene that she makes an enemy of every member of her investigative team.
The premiere of The Closer was a very good moment for women who watch women on the small screen.
Primetime crime TV has long lacked compelling female bosses who are also the leads on their shows. The female boss is usually a supporting character, such as Lt. Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), on Law & Order, while strong female protagonists usually appear as subordinates in the protective custody of male bosses, partners or colleagues, like Law & Order: SVU‘s Olivia (Mariska Hargitay) or Cold Case‘s Lilly (Kathryn Morris). By contrast, Johnson is definitely in charge of an elite murder squad, because of her proven ability to “close” cases using her CIA-honed skills as an interrogator.
The Closer spends early time on Johnson’s development. Neither a man-in-drag cliché nor an ice queen, she chews gum, drinks merlot, and makes luxurious lip-love to foil-wrapped junk food. As she shows when she brings half her wardrobe to the office for an interview with a self-confessed “good Catholic girl,” she sees her clothes as disposable identities she throws on and off at will. Such openly embodied sensuality — whether attached to sex, silk or doughnuts — distinguishes Johnson (even if she is as skinny as any model) from the conventional look-don’t-touch sexiness (all swooshy hair, plunging necklines and tight tees) of a Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) or Law & Order‘s recent, interchangeable ADAs.
Johnson also benefits from sharp dialogue. When one colleague complains that she doesn’t have to be such a bitch about being in charge, she snaps, “If I liked being called a bitch to my face, I’d still be married.” The writers strike sparks in her exchanges with the LAPD Assistant Police Chief, Will Pope (J.K. Simmons), the former lover who brought her to the murder squad. Both wry and witty, these bits encapsulate the perennial costs paid by ambitious women. An encounter by Pope’s car closes with him heading home to his second wife and Johnson to an impersonal hotel room, her only refuge, physical or emotional, in L.A. But when it comes to the show’s raison d’etre — demonstrations of Johnson’s exceptional skill as an interrogator — the first episode’s script fell flat, demonstrating only a conventional combination of threat, deceit, sweetness, and (faked) rage.
Neither does the direction, at least on the evidence of the premiere, compensate for the script’s blandness. While Michael M. Robin draws strong performances from Sedgwick and Pope, he treats the other actors cursorily. The sequence where the demoted head of the Priority Murder Unit (Robert Gossett), grandstanding in front of his former subordinates, physically refuses to let Johnson’s sergeant into forensics with a bullet for analysis, should have crackled with tension. Instead, the actors shuffled around as if they had lost their marks, the camera flipping between full-face close-ups instead of building to any kind of climax.
The episode also suffered from a lot of dead time where nothing happened, and happened badly. While Johnson interviews a suspect, the entire squad watches on a bank of computer monitors. Only, they were watching a perfectly ordinary (in TV terms) interrogation with the goggle-eyed blankness of middle schoolers who had never seen this situation before.
The strain of this response is only underlined by the fact that Johnson is typically surrounded by a wall of multicultural men (most blatantly configured in the series’ promo stills), as if to reassure viewers that she’s not the only character with visible power. Though the ensemble includes an African American woman detective (Gina Ravera), she’s excised from those promo photographs. She features as steadily in the first episode as several of the male supporting actors, yet her exclusion from the publicity for the show seems to cut off any possibility that Johnson might do something radical like form an alliance with a female subordinate. Indeed, Johnson’s assigned sergeant is a young male.
In this, The Closer follows the conventional TV paradigm for shows with female protagonists: women winners are still exceptionalized, a trend Margaret Marshment skewered nearly 20 years ago in her witty analysis of primetime women protagonist, “Substantial Women.”* One woman wins, but it’s a one-off triumph that showcases unprecedented personal talent, not a shift in social restraints. In 1982, the all-time most inspiring female cop duo Cagney and Lacey promised a TV representation to which many women would actually aspire. Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson offers a snapshot of how little images of women in popular culture have changed in 23 years.
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* Gamman, Lorraine, and Margaret Marshment, eds. The Female Gaze. London: The Women’s Press, 1988.