Willie Ray, Barry Corbin, John Tenney and Kyra Sedgwick, <EM>The Closer</EM> Willie Ray, Barry Corbin, John Tenney and Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

It's late afternoon on the mazelike Hollywood set of TNT's The Closer (special two-hour episode airing tonight at 8 pm/ET on TNT), and Kyra Sedgwick is filming a scene that would feel familiar to any fan of the show.

As LAPD Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson, she stands in the office of Assistant Police Chief Will Pope (J.K. Simmons), telling half-truths to her boss to help cover the trail of her unorthodox crime-solving methods. In a crisply enunciated Southern accent, Sedgwick says, "This is a tactical.…" Then, silence. "Line?" Sedgwick politely asks The Closer's script supervisor, who then reads a piece of dialogue aloud to her. Sedgwick continues. "This is a tactical operation now, for which SIS and…" Sedgwick's voice trails off again. "Line?" she calls out, this time with a tiny crackle of frustration.

On her third go, she remembers roughly four more words before suffering another memory lapse. A freighted silence fills the room. Finally, with a pained smile, she offers a clue as to the cause of this bout of forgetfulness. "I got nervous because the TV Guide reporter was here," she blurts out. "I was good before that." The cast and crew explode into laughter at Sedgwick's admission.

There’s no mistaking the family vibe behind the scenes of The Closer, which is why the theme of the special two-hour holiday episode they're filming today feels particularly apt. "Maybe it's because the holidays are so deeply associated with memory, because we remember holidays better than average days," explains The Closer creator James Duff, who's making his TV directorial debut with the second hour of the Dec. 3 episode, "Next of Kin." "The expectations that families have of us during the holidays in some ways mirror the expectations of what we had growing up — of what we would accomplish, of how we were expected to behave. But what I really wanted to talk about is guilt and how guilt functions in a family as a motivator."

In the episode, Brenda travels with her FBI-agent fiancé Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) to her hometown of Atlanta with the pretense of spending yuletide quality time with her parents. Actually, she's in her usual dogged pursuit, this time of a fugitive connected to two murders and a string of armored-car robberies. The instant her old-school Southern parents — Willie Ray (Frances Sternhagen) and Clay (Barry Corbin) — realize that their daughter is less interested in spending a cozy, greeting-card Christmas with her future husband and her folks than extracting a confession from a runaway perp, their disappointment, head-wagging and infliction of guilt come into the picture.

To some, Brenda might come off as coldhearted and work-obsessed. But to Sedgwick — who in recent years has taken to celebrating the holidays by jetting off with husband Kevin Bacon and their two children, Travis, 18, and Sosie, 15, on "adventure vacations" to places like Costa Rica, Thailand and the Galápagos Islands — everyone deserves to spend the holidays the way they please.

"Every year we go someplace different. There's a lot of pressure at Christmas because you're supposed to get together and have a great time, and we have this iconic picture of what everything is supposed to look like from the Bing Crosby movies we see on television," Sedgwick says. "It can never live up to our expectations because it's always complicated and different than what it looks like in the turkey ads. You know what I mean?"

The "Next of Kin" episode serves as a gift for fans who need a fix of The Closer before the fourth season starts next summer. "I think this has been an amazing season," says Sedgwick, summing up a year that both cemented the ensemble and boasted grittier storylines.

Not to mention scoring great ratings: In its third season, the series drew roughly a million new viewers, bringing its average audience to more than eight million an episode. As Sedgwick is quick to point out, that's pretty unusual. "I think the whole thing is a phenomenon," she says, smiling. "I don't know how we're going to top this year, I tell ya."

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