The Closer

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Zack Handlen tackles one of cable's top-rated dramas, The Closer. Next week, Leonard Pierce will take a look at TV's number one new show, CBS' Hawaii Five-0.) 

To begin with, something terrible has to happen. "Old Money" opens with a middle-aged man running an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When the meeting is over, a younger man sticks around to talk. He's nervous and uncomfortable, and he says his life is falling apart. The older man listens sympathetically, then offers to take him across the street for a coffee and further conversation. The younger man begs off and leaves. The Closer doesn't have a title sequence like most shows; instead, the AA cold open is intercut with occasional shots of white text on a black screen. It gives you the sense that the scene is building, even if immediate events don't have much drama to them. The man's speech, the conversation that follows, none of this is inherently suspenseful. But by breaking up the scene with stark credit panels, our expectations are changed. Even if you'd never seen an episode of this show before, you'd know something bad was about to go down. The middle-aged man leaves the building, heads to the parking lot—it's very quiet—he goes to his car, starts to unlock the door—and then the KNIFE FIGHT FROM HELL begins!

Actually, it's not all knife fight, but as beatings-in-parking-lots go, this one is surprisingly well choreographed. The middle-aged man is actually Lt. Andy Flynn, a regular on the series, so it's not a huge surprise that he survives the assault, but ... actually, strike that. This is my first full experience with The Closer, and for all I know, it runs through secondary cast members like the Snot Monster through a Kleenex factory. (I'm shopping some of my gag-writing out to my 4-year-old niece. If you don't think that's funny, she says you can go fuck yourself.) At the very least, Flynn seems exceptionally difficult to murder. Still, this is something terrible that has happened, and once that terrible thing stops happening, after Flynn puts two bullets in his fleeing assailant and calls his precinct, that's when the good guys step in. Because if we begin with something terrible (and of course we do, there's no thrill if we don't), it's our job to put that terrible thing right; to smoke out evildoers, despite a legal system that tries to strangle Justice in red-tape and the venal bastards who do their best to exploit that system. There are cop shows and lawyer shows and doctor shows, but what it all comes down to is transforming the terrible into just another part of the steady trudge of civilization.

The Closer also boosts Kyra Sedgwick as the titular closer, a Georgia detective transplanted to LA to head up the city's fictional Major Crimes Division. The show is currently in its sixth season, and I imagine the "Southern lady in the City of Angels" hook was a lot more dramatic in the first couple seasons. In "Money," apart from her accent, there's nothing that sets Brenda apart from anyone else on the show. Sure, she "closes" the main case of the episode, but so do the leads of most every other cop show on television. (Well, apart from the more "serious" ones.) Brenda shows no particular special abilities here and no real character apart from a sort of grim feisty-ness. Sedgwick, who's been nominated six times for an Emmy for her work on the show (winning for the first time earlier this year), seems content to let her pinched facial expression and budget Scarlett O'Hara inflections do the heavy lifting. The character's aggressive, "I won't stand for any foolishness" tone is locked into place from the very first scene, even when she's expressing concern for the injured Flynn. It would be hilarious (and, honestly, sometimes is) if it had more energy. As it is, I just kept wondering if Sedgwick kept a bag of lemons on hand for her close-ups.

She's not awful enough to be entertaining, sadly, except for those few precious moments when Brenda gets to gloat over some poor fool criminal who thinks he's gotten the better of her. Mostly, she just falls into the familiar role of "off-putting lead whom everyone else on the series is completely devoted to." She's got the hunky cop husband, who's clearly devoted to her (another possible reason for the show's popularity—and it's very popular—is the "woman of a certain age who gets the job done at home and at work" vibe, which, honestly, I have no problem with whatsoever) and all the men in her squad who follow her every command. Even her boss, the wonderful J.K. Simmons, seems somewhat smitten. And that makes sense, really. If we're going to try and bring order to the chaos of modern life, we need to have a family unit to pull together, a group bound by shared conviction, whose safety is our foremost concern. One of the main points of interest in "Money" is that this isn't just some random civilian who got targeted by the super ninja death assassin. This is a cop, and he's part of the family, and now, someone has to pay. 

How that payment is meted out is the most interesting aspect of "Money," though probably not in the way the writers intended. Apparently, when Brenda and her team fix their attentions on a particular criminal, they don't really bother much with ethical or legal boundaries. The cops discover the person responsible for the assault on Flynn early on: Rick Zuman, a coke dealer and money launderer in the '90s who's currently in jail through Flynn's efforts. They have a chat with Zuman, only to find out that he's off Death Row because one of the key witnesses in his trial has recanted her testimony, and that's when the other shoe drops: Flynn is being threatened with charges of witness intimidation, and he's got a file full of conduct complaints. If it's proven that he coerced the recanting witness (the delightfully named Floria Stenzel), Zuman will go free, and anarchy would hold sway, etc. 

What's funny here is that no effort is made to impugn Flynn's character. Oh sure, Mary McDonnell shows up to wave around that really, really thick folder, and she's supposedly in charge of determining whether the charges against the Lieutenant have any veracity, but there's no real threat there. Given the premise and the fact that the episode starts at an AA meeting, you'd expect "Money" to spend at least some of its running time focusing on Flynn struggling as the demons of his past came back and playing up the ambiguity of that, again, terribly full folder. Instead, Flynn is a stolid presence, who barely registers as a presence on the show, apart from that terrific fight scene and his rage post-ass-kicking. (His description of the perp: "White, 6 feet ... asshole!") The set-up really doesn't matter, it's just a way to give Brenda and the others the moral authority to use whatever means necessary to take the bad man down. 

They take full advantage of this privilege. As with a lot of cop dramas, there's a touch of the fascist here. Once Brenda understands the situation (and there's no effort made to track down any other suspects, of course), she decides to put the full pressure of her department on poor, stupid Floria Stenzel's head. First she sends a pair of her detectives—two black detectives, which is probably intentional—to inform Floria that her life may be in danger. Then, she has another one of her detectives, Sanchez, drive by Floria's house then walk around the property until Floria, terrified for her life, calls the cops in. It's all played for laughs, but it's creepy just the same. In essence, in order to defend one of her officers from engaging in witness coercion, Brenda is engaging in some witness coercion herself. Oh sure, Floria is crooked; Rick paid her off (with some of the same money he used to pay off the earlier assassin, money which the unit used to pull the case together and which gives the episode its title), and as soon as a little pressure is applied, she folds. But what if she hadn't been bought?

It's not hard to see the appeal of a show like this. Procedurals are security blanket television, the warm, comforting assurance that whatever darkness may fall, the authorities will always be close behind to start lighting candles. (Cursing optional.) But the best shows of this type recognize that even the cops get things wrong every now and again and that they can fail. What's frustrating about "Old Money" is that it starts from a position of weakness but never allows that weakness to have any impact on its heroes. There's no doubt, no faltering, and while courage is a noble virtue, Brenda's implacability doesn't seem all that heroic. She's almost monstrous in her determination, which has the weird effect of making Zuman the underdog, not because he's likable but because he never stood a chance. (And that's not even mentioning how Zuman is pretty clearly gay, which creates this whole other unfortunate subtext about the forces of Good standing up to the decadence of the Other.) There's never any question that Major Crimes will close their case. Their opponents aren't even a threat. So maybe that's the appeal. It's all the rights violations and gloating speeches, without any of the uncomfortable tension of actual drama. It's a perfect world, where the cops are always right, the villains are always wrong, and if you're asking questions, you're part of the problem.  

Stray Observations:

  • So far as I can tell, if Rick hadn't bothered taking out his grudge on Flynn before his appeal went through, Brenda and the others would never have been involved. So not only is she always right, but she has bad guys tripping over themselves to get screwed.
  • Glad to see Mary McDonnell is getting a paycheck.
  • "Proceed with your outrage." 
  • Hilarious Out of Context line #1: "Floria gave up a name. Jeff. Ring a bell?" (Depends, is there a Pink Lady involved?)
  • Hilarious Out of Context line #2: "I thought that you might like this back. Flynn's package."

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