The Closer

In a topical nod to its California setting, The Closer‘s fourth season opener found Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) trying to solve a murder wrapped in the riddle of a raging forest fire. Someone killed a woman and used her body as a torch to start a devastating inferno. The mystery was fine (as always, Johnson solved it by getting some baddie to confess), but once again, the series showcased its strongest suit: interesting relationships among unusual individuals.

Chief among these is Johnson. A CIA-trained homicide detective from Atlanta, she has obvious tics, as well as a standard fish-out-of-water situation: her ladylike mannerisms (“Thank yew”) clash repeatedly with her L.A. noir demimonde. Having thoroughly worked her Southernness in previous seasons, the series now seems poised to focus on Johnson’s other distinguishing “quirks.” Fierce but often flustered, uptight and driven, she frequently has trouble wrangling her purse and her glasses. She’s a savant at work, but she has no idea how to deal with non-perps. Still, over the previous three seasons, Johnson’s intrepid, multicultural team has come to work like a well-oiled machine — and a dysfunctional family.

In “Controlled Burn,” which aired 14 July, the family was again disrupted by the return of a pyromaniac from Season One. Brought in as both a suspect and potential expert advisor, Bill Croelick (Jason O’Mara) is a creepy customer who burns his girlfriends alive. As he was about to get a huge settlement from the LAPD because of a botched case against him, the episode smartly conveyed Johnson’s exasperation, as it appeared that once again red tape would trump hard police work. Mr. Plays-With-Fire also fixated on her, showing up at her house whenever he felt like it, but she also needed his help to solve the case. She won this power struggle, then looked to her fiancé, longsuffering FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney), for comfort after her ordeal. Still, she didn’t tell Fritz about the icky flirty game she had to endure with Croelick.

The other primary couple in the series also looked to be having troubles. Sergeant Gabriel (Corey Reynolds) and Detective Daniels (Gina Ravera) exchanged icy glares and verbal snaps throughout the hour, and when Johnson asked Daniels a question during the Priority Homicide Squad’s discussion of the case, he answered for his girlfriend. In previous seasons, it was Johnson’s relationships (with Fritz or old flame Assistant Police Chief Pope [J.K. Simmons]) that provided the awkward moments. When Johnson asked Gabriel if he and Daniels were having trouble, he lied, saying they were fine; Johnson added some pressure, saying she “couldn’t handle it” if things went south. This weak scene pointed out how the eccentric theme can be a double-edged sword: funny most of the time, unconvincing at others.

Johnson often walks a fine line between complex and irritating. Apparently she’s overwhelmed by her job, her sexual tension with Pope, and all those supporting players who slow her down, from intrusive reporters to any cop not in her division. She’s also distracted by her pained attempts to please her parents or least keep them off her back, her hang-up-hampered relationship with Fritz, and her real estate anxieties that are really about her fear of commitment. In this episode we learned that she and Fritz, having finally sold her house at the end of last season, are now renting a house because of the bad real estate market. Because the landlord doesn’t allow pets, she was spent long minutes trying to hide her cat (a female named “Kitty,” whom Johnson keeps calling “he”), and oh yes, she’s reluctant to unpack her boxes while they’re in a rental. All this seems a low sort of quirk-comedy: we’ve resorted to shtick about the mortgage crisis?

More effective plot points are less cute and more serious about developing Johnson’s defining internal tension. While she cuts like a knife through her homicide cases, she stalls and fidgets through her personal life. As she coaxes gender-confused Kitty out of her cage, she may also be coaxing herself into adulthood.

RATING 7 / 10