Critics seem almost obliged to go gaga about how good Kyra Sedgwick is at playing a whip-smart police chief and CIA-trained interrogator who can detect a lie before it's even left a suspect's mouth.
But what I really like about TNT's "The Closer" is not its plots or climactic interrogation scenes, riveting as these often are, but the quirky-sexy Ms. Sedgwick herself — the way she's always running rings around her hapless male boss, Assistant Police Chief Will Pope (J.K. Simmons), for instance, not to mention her principal rival, Commander Taylor (Robert Gossett). Or how she manages to cajole, boss, charm, and befuddle all the men under her command into doing whatever she wants them to do, not excluding (by and large) her maximally patient boyfriend, FBI agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney). Ms. Sedgwick plays Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson as an ultra-smart diva, and the reason "The Closer" is "ad-supported cable's no. 1 series of all time" (as TNT likes to say), is that she's a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Ms. Sedgwick and "The Closer" were back for the start of their third season last night, and the opening episode — which was about a triple murder committed by an enraged teenager who'd discovered (a) that his father was a bigamist, and (b) that his father's other family was leading a much more luxurious life than his own — didn't disappoint. The boy's fury when he found out his father was running his two families on a two-tier system, with his own being on the lower economic rung — "And there they all were, with their big house and fancy car …" he sputtered. "So I picked up that fancy letter opener on his desk or whatever it was and I stabbed him with it" — was horribly convincing.
There were also two subplots, both of which were like dessert in comparison with the main course. The first involved departmental budget cuts, leading to the worrying possibility that the oldest member of Brenda's squad, the crusty-but-endearing Detective Lieutenant Provenza (G.W. Bailey), might have to retire, but the main point was that it allowed us to enjoy watching Brenda flout every order Pope gave her by spending even more of the department's money than she usually does.
My favorite moment in the episode was when Pope, insisting that Brenda go ahead with the budget cuts, said, "Consider, just for a moment, a universe in which you work for me, and in which what I need is important too." Nice try. Brenda is not what you'd call a team player, a phrase she'd probably regard as a euphemism for agreeing to go along with the prevailing mediocrity in a given group. Her idea of team play is to do her best for the team by doing her best as an individual. There's a lot to be said for that approach, but it's amazing how many people can't quite wrap it around their team-playing skulls.
The second subplot was about Brenda's ongoing battle with boyfriend Fritz, who wants them to get a bigger house so that he can finally move his stuff out of the garage. "Don't you realize I'm working on an extremely important murder case?" Brenda asked him plaintively after he reminded her that this was the weekend they'd agreed to go house hunting together. "You're always working on an ‘extremely important' murder case," Fritz replied sarcastically, treating her to a marvelously level staredown. Somehow, Fritz manages to cater to practically all of Brenda's whims while combining understated machismo with the forbearance of a yogi.
There may be some clichéd feminine elements to Brenda's character (the too-predictable secret passion for chocolate, endless rummaging in her handbag, inability to work a simple coffee maker, etc.), but you tend to forget about them when you see her at work in the interrogation room. There was one particularly strong scene in which Ms. Sedgwick really got to show off her acting ability by demonstrating the "mixture of sounds that the human body makes when it's stabbed to death." Needless to say, the performance was terrifying. Just looking at her eyes, which though dark brown turn a spooky interstellar black when her blood's up, was frightening enough. And then there's the fact that her face has so many interesting angles you never get tired of looking at it.
In the end, fans of police procedurals and crime dramas generally fall into three categories: those who are addicted to puzzles and plots, those whose chief interest lies in the main character, and — ideally — those who combine both elements and therefore fully appreciate the story in all its dimensions. I confess that I belong to the second category: I often miss obvious clues and I zone out immediately unless the protagonist, or at least a worthwhile villain, grabs my attention. Last night's story was good, but for me it's all about Brenda and her family of detectives, over which she presides like a brilliant, seductive, endlessly fascinating but slightly kooky aunt.
When "The Closer" was first shown, critics were quick to compare it to "Prime Suspect," the dour but enthralling British police procedural starring Helen Mirren. There's something in that, but "The Closer" is not only made in Hollywood, it's set there too, and its glamour quotient is far higher than the writers of "Prime Suspect" would ever countenance. It's clever, satisfying entertainment, and most of all it's a witty take on male-female relations when the female happens to be running the show.
A recent book claimed that Dutch women are the happiest in the world because they enjoy the most sexual freedom, order their men around, and the men like it, mainly because Dutch women have apparently been bossing them for centuries. There's a lot of Dutch in "The Closer." There is only one other female in Brenda's unit, Detective Irene Daniels (Gina Ravera), and it's no coincidence that Brenda seems to harbor few warm feelings for her. Like Ms. Mirren's Detective Superintendant Jane Tennison, Brenda is a feminist who's quite happy to be the only female in the room. Luckily for us, she fills it to perfection.