The Closer began its fifth season the other night and I watched, out of habit more than out of desire. The show has had a great deal of commercial success for TNT in its run, but I’m not sure I’d call it much of a critical success.
The show began with a “fish out of water” premise: Assistant Chief Will Pope (played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons) brought to Los Angeles as his Deputy Chief in Major Crimes an associate he had known in Atlanta, Brenda Leigh Johnson. As portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick, Brenda was a heavily accented transplant who had trouble negotiating her way around Los Angeles, in terms of the geography as well as the police department. She seemed to have a lot of quirks, and was something of the offspring of Tony Shalhoub’s Monk and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Robert Goren (from Law and Order: Criminal Intent) in her combination of perspicacity as an investigator with her deep social ineptitude. Although most of the Major Crimes unit quickly could recognize her ability to close out a case once she got the suspect in the interview room, at first, few in the department trusted her or respected her, which was reinforced by her past romantic relationship with Will Pope, which eventually helped lead to the breakup of his marriage.
While she seemed to have moved on from that relationship, it was clear in the beginning of the show that he was still interested. She, however, quickly formed a liking for Agent Fritz Howard of the Los Angeles FBI branch, and there was some tension in the first few seasons as these romantic rivals vied for Brenda’s affections. But that narrative tension was pretty much always ameliorated by the obviousness of Brenda’s preference for Fritz.
After about the second season, as her relationship with Fritz solidified, so did Brenda as a character. She started to lose some of her quirks and became rather normalized. At the same time, the show started to emphasize the members of her team to greater effect and these characters evolved into the ones driving the overriding plot arcs of the show: Sergeant Gabriel, Lieutenant Provenza, Lieutenant Flynn, Lieutenant Tao, and Detective Sanchez. As the actors playing these roles got the chance to command more of the camera, the show became less of a star vehicle for Sedgwick and more of an ensemble. In many ways, that element still dominates and is probably the strength of the show. Brenda is less and less of a quirky fish out of water and more of a neurotic and not always very pleasant boss who is very good at her job. Another way of writing that sentence might be that Brenda isn’t very fun to watch. Her costars are, though. While the beginning of the show posed her as something like Monk and the show has having the comic elements of that show, that dynamic has changed in that now Brenda has little comedy to her character but her co-stars have lots. They get all the good lines. Brenda is something of a bore.
As the depth of the ensemble grew, The Closer also added other characters to continue the sense of “color” that Brenda had originally brought to the narrative. Sometimes the criminals have provided this – Jason O’Mara was especially compelling as a killer in an early episode and he got away, and the show brought him back for another appearance in a later season. Last summer Billy Burke made for an especially ingenious defense attorney who also happens to be an especially ingenious murderer. He too got away, and Brenda started to keep a photo of him on her desk because the case seemed to haunt her. I’d be shocked if his character doesn’t return.
But the two characters who now provide the comic element of the show are Brenda’s parents, Clay and Willie Ray Johnson, played by Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen. These two, with their Southern accents and their smalltown ways, embody the continuation of the “fish out of water” narrative that Brenda originated but which she grew out of as she acclimated to Los Angeles. Clay and Willie Ray are not going to acclimate and they are not going to evolve. As comic figures they are not supposed to, and their comedy derives from their very steadfastness. They appear for visits every season and lighten the narrative while serving to remind Brenda of her roots and her family obligations in the face of her dedication to her job. They’re not actually particularly interesting characters, in that they serve only narrative purposes and aren’t really drawn as compelling three-dimensional characters in their own right. In a way, they are a good example of what is wrong with the show – the characters serve as little more than pawns in the plots. Presenting and solving the crime are all that matter – the characters don’t.
As a formula, there is nothing inherently wrong with this – hello, Law and Order! – but the problem for The Closer is that it seems to try to be too many things at once – a serious crime show, a workplace drama with its tensions between the home and the office in terms of what Brenda pays attention to and who she ultimately sees as her “family,” and a bit of a comedy too. The show is at its best when it dramatizes the tensions between Brenda and Fritz and her team in the office. The comedy is enjoyable but doesn’t have much legs, and the mysteries are never really all that good, with the few notable exceptions mentioned above – and those were driven by the actors’ performances as much as by the writing of the show.
In fact, last season the show introduced a new character, Charlie, Brenda’s niece, who brought some valuable new elements to the program. Charlie was a bit of trouble and the work of parenting her that Fritz and Brenda had to do brought out elements of their relationship that were new and revealed greater depth to each of them. At the same time, Brenda couldn’t help herself in more than once getting Charlie involved in some of her cases – clearly an irresponsible thing to do, but again yielding some valuable dramatic elements. I’m not sure we’ll see Charlie again, but her character was the best thing on The Closer last season. This season has just begun, and I don’t see a lot of promise in it, I must say, unless the show can figure what it wants to be and gets down to the business of being it.