License to Shrill


When The Closer appeared last June, critics compared it to Prime Suspect. Not a bad thing to aspire to—a very, very good thing, in fact, considering that drama’s gritty scripts and the devastating, luminous presence of Helen Mirren as Detective Jane Tennison—but it’s the kind of comparison that could mean instant ratings death in American prime time. Yet The Closer became the cable TV hit of last summer. Kyra Sedgwick now returns for another season as Brenda Johnson, deputy chief of the LAPD’s Priority Homicide Division. Like Mirren’s character, she’s a sharp-witted detective, and sexy in a non-glamour-puss, wrong-side-of-40 way. Both women must operate on aggressive overdrive to win the grudging respect of crusty, old-guard male cops.

Brenda arrived from Atlanta, a CIA-trained expert at interrogation and “closing” cases. Promoted above veteran colleagues, she instantly rubbed everyone the wrong way with her grating Southern accent (as broad as her enormous smile) and her sarcastic, bullshit-free style. “In this department that’s just not the way I play ball,” one gray-haired crank lectures her in the first episode of the new season. “Well, Captain, if you don’t like the way I’m doing things you’re free to take your balls and go straight home,” she trills with a straight face, as steely and poised as a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara.

Sedgwick bears the weight of this uneven show on her tiny shoulders—or, more accurately, in her twitchy, birdlike face. Her role pivots around composure, the maintenance of a kind of public armor that is both authoritative and disarming. “I have to get dressed,” she tells her CIA hunk of a boyfriend one morning, “and I want to look a little stern.” Sedgwick doesn’t overplay the toughness, though. She inhabits the role with such confidence and subtlety that I learned to overlook her gimmicky quirks. The writers have loaded her down with so many, it’s a wonder the character doesn’t collapse. The main one is an unhealthy obsession with junk food. Rarely did we spy Brenda last season without some kind of crinkly wrapper or sticky sugarcoated substance in her paws; she was locked in a flamboyant struggle with her own overwhelming desires.

Was Brenda’s food lust intended as a cheap way to indicate emotional depth, a blast of humor, or a buzz-generating trademark, like House’s gimpy leg and Monk’s OCD? Probably all of the above, but the show seems to be backing off this motif a bit, judging by the first episode of this season, which finds Brenda gamely trying out a junk-free diet. When she catches old Lieutenant Provenza gnawing on a chocolate bar mid-briefing, she looks stricken. “I thought we agreed to keep snacks with processed sugar out of the murder room,” she chides, causing him to regurgitate the brown goo into his hand like a chastened little boy caught snacking between meals.

Brenda’s manner is more shrill and abrasive than ever. Like Barbara Walters, she likes to make her interviewees cry. Maybe that’s why the writers, worried she’ll lose our sympathy, work so hard to highlight their heroine’s feminine vulnerability, sometimes wandering into clichéd territory. Brenda’s poor sense of direction often leaves her lost in the streets of L.A., and her crappy parallel-parking skills frequently make her late to crime scenes. She won’t commit to her boyfriend, and to make things worse, she can’t resist dallying with her ex-boyfriend (played by Oz alum J.K. Simmons), who also happens to be her boss. The more she aims to be in control, the more speedily flustered she grows. Where Monk uses his neuroses to directly solve cases, Brenda’s quirks are more ornamental, used to distract and disarm her foes. Her brittle nerves do turn her into a kind of emotional tuning fork, though, a highly sensitized creature attuned to out-of-whack frequencies.

At its best, the show’s witty repartee brings to mind classic film noir. “Do you smoke after sex?” someone asks Brenda, to which she retorts with the old blue joke, “I don’t know, I never looked.” And when a combative colleague accuses her of being a bitch, she snaps, “If I liked being called a bitch to my face, I’d still be married.” In the end, the appeal of The Closer lies more in Brenda’s character than in plot suspense. It’s often pretty obvious who the killer is, but the point isn’t whodunit, it’s howdshedoit? This heroine’s speciality, after all, is “the close”: The thrill comes from watching Brenda coax the killer into confessing his deepest secrets, and watching Brenda quietly and kookily betray her own.