People have been underestimating Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson of the LAPD for seven seasons now. Villains are thrown off-guard when the ditsy blonde saunters into the interview room and completely disarmed when she unleashes her Southern drawl. But lurking behind that charming exterior is a cunning officer who extracts confessions from murder suspects as easily as she separates Ding Dongs from their wrappers.
Critics and casual viewers have also sorely misjudged The Closer, which airs on TNT Mondays at 9 p.m. ET. If you’ve thought about the series at all in the past few years, you’ve likely considered it to be just another procedural—comfort TV for fans of CSI and Law & Order. But don’t let the squad-room setting and the show’s popularity fool you. The Closer is complex, riveting, and beautifully acted, and it belongs in the TV pantheon alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. The show aired its 100th episode Monday night, and as it nears the halfway point in its final season, The Closer is challenging the TV convention of the heroic crime-solver who takes justice into her own hands—and, in the process, challenging the entire genre of procedural television.
Good procedurals are like Old Faithful: Reliability is their defining characteristic. The Closer offers up a quality mystery and a tricky interrogation each week, but unlike, say, CSI, it does so without becoming predictable. Instead, it keeps viewers guessing by varying its dramatic tone. Sometimes the show’s mood is urgent and epic, as when its targets are psychopaths and gang-bangers; sometimes it’s sly and tantalizing, as when cheating spouses turn murderous; and once or twice a season it’s downright silly, usually when Detectives Flynn and Provenza become distracted by attractive young women. The 100th episode was one of those light-hearted romps, as the officers of the Major Crime Division investigated a case of Santacide in Los Angeles’ pre-eminent Christmas village. It’s impossible to imagine a self-consciously serious show like Law & Order: SVU offering a moment of levity, much less commemorating a significant milestone with elf fights and Fred Willard as a boozy St. Nick.
Unusually beyond the confines of premium cable, The Closer has a large ensemble cast—Law & Order got through 20 seasons with a three-cop team and NCIS has just four core investigators. The show takes advantage of all its actors, providing officers Provenza, Flynn, Tao, Sanchez, Gabriel, Raydor, Taylor, and Pope with their own distinct personalities, quirks, and skills. Although this is definitely a Kyra Sedgwick vehicle, each member of the supporting cast contributes to the investigations (without overwhelming the show).
Like The Wire, which focused on a different Baltimore institution each season, The Closer explores a new theme every year. The first concerned Brenda’s arrival from Atlanta and her attempts to win over the detectives on her squad, all of whom initially dismissed her as a clueless outsider. As time has passed, the challenges have radiated outward from that starting point. The show’s characters have evolved over time, transformed by everything that’s come before. The Brenda of Season 7 is different from the woman who first arrived in Los Angeles, because she’s stared down cancer, tangled with police bureaucracy, and learned from her colleagues. And those colleagues were in turn changed by their interactions with Brenda—after working with her, experienced cops became much better detectives, and although Capt. Sharon Raydor was originally appalled by Brenda’s corner-cutting ways, she later encouraged her to run for chief of police. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a single event—even 9/11—that changed the personalities of the Law & Order detectives. All too often, TV cops seem to have sprung from their mothers’ wombs as canny, wise-cracking, sunglasses-lowering masters of detection.
Over the years, like so many procedural heroes before her, Brenda has meted out her own version of justice. Given a choice between using deception to extract a confession and performing a straightforward interrogation that could put a killer’s fate in the hands of a judge and jury, Brenda lies without apology. She allows gang members and mobsters to render their own verdicts on their former friends, and all too often they choose execution. The traditional rules of television celebrate this kind of behavior, making heroes of innovative problem-solvers and treating by-the-book types as paperwork-loving dullards.
In this final season, The Closer is challenging that tradition through attorney Peter Goldman, who’s collected a fat file of Brenda’s misdeeds and is suing her, the LAPD, and the city of Los Angeles for her “pattern of denying suspects their constitutional privilege to a fair trial.” Brenda’s protestations that these suspects were murderers and child-molesters—the TV cops’ time-honored scumbag defense—holds no sway with Goldman. “What one knows and what one can prove are two different things,” he tells her. “You don’t seem to get that.” Nor do most police procedurals, but The Closer is putting that convention on trial.
For a viewer, this is remarkably unsettling. In the real world, we’d cheer for Goldman; watching TV, we’re torn between supporting the heroine we’ve long thought of as a force for good, and the pesky weasel who, we realize, is probably in the right. In confronting her own unique kind of corruption, Brenda is redefining the notion of a good cop. She can’t be bribed or bought, but she does take liberties, assigning herself powers she’s not entitled to. Sedgwick’s portrayal of a woman who is suddenly becoming aware of her own shortcomings is truly remarkable.
I suspect the critical establishment withholds its respect from The Closer because it’s more female than most quality television these days. Take a look at the upper reaches of the AV Club’s list of “best TV shows of the ’00s” (a ranking that, even allowing for some idiosyncratic selections, is pretty representative of the critical consensus), and you’ll detect a distinct whiff of testosterone. Brenda is an island of pink in that sea of blue—a purse-carrying, lipstick-wearing, girly girl at that. But she’s also becoming fashionably gray. In an age of anti-heroes, Brenda is the most complex of them all: corrupted by a drive to do good, but forced to consign her own fate to a forum she treats with disdain—the courtroom.
One hundred episodes in, I have no idea if Brenda Leigh Johnson will end up in a jail cell or in the police chief’s office. And the best part is, I don’t know which she deserves.