One of the things I'll miss most about Brenda Leigh Johnson is her sweet tooth: that secret compulsion and most shameful addiction indulged by the Deputy Chief of the LAPD's Major Crimes Division whenever she reaches for that overstuffed top desk drawer, a Pavlovian response to the nerve-wracking stress of her high-profile job. In a more typical L.A. crime story, the hard-driving boss reveals a weakness for booze. With Brenda, it's the soothing waft of chocolate when she peels back the foil from a Ding Dong, savoring the guilty pleasure.
We all know how she feels. For the last seven summers, The Closer has been a delicious summer treat, a smartly executed, wonderfully cast and winningly accessible procedural that was an instant hit and powerful signature show for TNT, putting the network on the map as a player in the crowded field of cable drama. What set this show apart from countless other police chronicles was Kyra Sedgwick's Emmy- and Golden Globe-rewarded performance as Brenda — which I first reviewed back in 2005, praising the "intoxicating mix of drawling honey and steely vinegar" she brought to this deceptively dithery Atlanta-bred belle, a provocatively charming yet unexpectedly cutthroat hybrid of Scarlett O'Hara and Lt. Columbo.
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Early on, The Closer's debt to the British classic Prime Suspect (and the character of Jane Tennison, immortalized by Helen Mirren) was unmistakable. Here was a pushy female interloper, further distinguished by a thick Southern twang and an inability to find her way around the Los Angeles sprawl, initially resented by the nearly all-male homicide squad she ruled. Didn't help that she had a messy past with the superior officer (the invaluable J.K. Simmons as now-Interim Chief Will Pope) who brought her in.
Though Brenda's sugar highs proved less debilitating than Jane's alcohol blackouts, both went after their prey with a single-minded aggression-bordering-on-arrogance that ruffled bureaucratic feathers and would come back to bedevil them. Soon enough, though, Brenda's co-workers and fans came to admire — the cops grudgingly, the viewer delightedly — just why she deserved the title of The Closer. What a blast to watch her use her feminine wiles week after week to disarm, maybe even seduce, the unwitting suspect so they'd underestimate her, then go in for the kill and wrap things up with a clipped "Thank yewww." It was the best stationary dance act on TV. As I wrote in my initial review, "The closer she gets, the better The Closer looks."
But nowadays, we expect our TV heroes to have clay feet (even in stylish stilettos), significant character flaws to make them interesting. Once again, Brenda aimed to please. Or displease. Her competitive zeal often put her at odds with her long-suffering beau and eventual husband Fritz (Jon Tenney), an FBI agent whose own job never seemed to come first. When there were territorial disputes between agencies, Brenda always expected Fritz to step aside, which he didn't always do willingly. In one of their more heated battles, she learned after they were engaged that he was an alcoholic with DUIs on his record from before they met. She accused him of lying, and he tore into her as a hypocrite, given the cavalier way she plays with truth on and off the job.
In one of the final episodes of this summer's six-episode swan song, she admitted, "Sometimes I feel like I pay more attention to what murderers have to say, while ignoring the people I really care about."
Brenda put her entire division at risk a while back when, ignoring the concerns of her devoted sidekick Sgt. Gabriel (Corey Reynolds), she freed a known killer in gang territory, knowing he would be murdered. This shocking act proved to be pivotal for her career and for the show, as legal complications including a costly federal case hounded her through most of last season, with the settlement including the creation of the "Johnson Rule," forbidding the LAPD to release suspects into a hostile environment. Not exactly the legacy a humiliated Brenda envisioned when she took this job.
But now, as all good Closer fans know, it's the end of the road — for Sedgwick and Brenda anyway. Monday's series finale (9/8c) is Brenda's last hurrah, following a run of episodes that put her through the emotional wringer again: losing her beloved mother (Frances Sternhagen) and then learning the identity of the office leak, which compromised the integrity and reputation of her beloved deputy Gabriel. (Reynolds is also leaving after tonight's episode.) There's one last case and one last murderer to tangle with — the malevolent serial killer Phillip Stroh (Billy Burke), back to rile and taunt Brenda to once again flout procedure at the risk of her career — and then it's time to move on.
But TNT didn't want to fold tent just because Sedgwick was ready to pack it in. Which explains why the network is wasting no time in immediately launching the spin-off Major Crimes (10/9c), comfort food for longtime fans in its solid whodunit structure and rhythms. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. With most of The Closer's original crew staying on, it's almost business as usual — though with Sedgwick no longer at the center, replaced by Mary McDonnell's inscrutably smug and unsympathetic Capt. Sharon Raydor, the franchise can't help but be diminished. It's like when The X-Files tried to carry on without Mulder.
Sharon's goal, reminiscent of Brenda's first year, is to win the squad over — and in this case, the viewer as well. It won't be easy, especially as the department's new directive saps their morale, with an emphasis on making deals to save the city money rather than scoring dramatic confessions. "It just sucks," gripes an itching-to-transfer Lt. Provenza (G.W. Bailey), always the toughest nut to crack. "It does a little," concedes Sharon. Maybe even more than a little.
An attempt to humanize the new boss mostly backfires, as she finds herself saddled her with a tiresomely rebellious teenage ward of the state (introduced in the Closer finale) whom she takes under her wing. Major Crimes, like its predecessor, is at its best in the workplace, even one that seems a bit emptier in the abrupt transition.
Long live Brenda Leigh Johnson. And TNT certainly hopes Major Crimes will live as long if not longer than The Closer. It won't be the same without her, but crime goes on.