One of the big problems that last fall’s Prime Suspect didn’t even seem to know it had was that it thought it was doing something revolutionary by having its heroine fight battles that had already been fought, if not done to death, on other shows. There may still be something to say about the situation of a female police detective who has to fight sexism and the old-boys’ network before she can even get a crack at fighting crime, but Prime Suspect didn’t have anything to offer that hadn’t already been done better. And not just 20 years earlier, on its British namesake, but more recently, on The Closer.
In its prime, Kyra Sedgwick’s starring vehicle offered an updated spin on Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison: Sedgwick’s character, Brenda Leigh Johnson, was never as gritty, and could come across as much more twitty, but that was part of the protective coloration she used to get her targets to underestimate her. The down side was that, until they’d seen Johnson prove herself again and again, the sexist Troglodytes in her division were inclined to underestimate her, too. And whenever she’d finally earned everyone’s respect, a sudden slip-up or awkward moment, such as the one occasioned by the revelation that she’d once had an affair with her boss, Will Pope (J.K. Simmons), could send her right back to square one.
As a high-profile, glossy NBC series, Prime Suspect may have regarded its tacky little basic-cable predecessor as beneath its notice, but at its best, The Closer was a highly watchable, engrossing genre show of the kind that Prime Suspect itself was finally just learning to be when the axe came down. After seven seasons, The Closer is leaving the air in a condition that’s far from its best; it’s still popular enough that it might have stuck around even longer if Sedgwick hadn’t decided to call it a day, but its last, six-episode mini-season has been a disappointment and a mistake, a miscalculated attempt to send Johnson off in a final blaze of glory and, at the same time, set up a spinoff series, Major Crimes, which places Mary McDonnell in charge of Johnson’s old squad—and the bulk of Sedgwick’s supporting cast.
The last batch of Closer episodes has been devoted to engineering a showdown between Johnson and her latest archnemesis, Phillip Stroh (Billy Burke), a slimy, pretty-boy defense attorney whose glib smarminess would have viewers clamoring to see him shot dead even if he didn’t have a secret life as a serial rapist-murderer. In the opening scene of the finale, a young male hustler named Rusty (Graham Patrick Martin) is in the park with a male client when they both spot Stroh taking a midnight stroll with a dead body flung over his shoulder. Those who dimly recall what was fun about this show may get a kick out of the impromptu interrogation scene when Johnson and her team track down the john, who, naturally, denies having even been there. Johnson points to the pile of evidence he left behind testifying to his having been there and, in her endearingly overdone Southern accent, suggests that maybe she should ask his wife and kids if they have any idea why he might have been in Griffith Park, after dark, “with a shirtless minah!”
Rusty, the shirtless minor, arouses Johnson’s protective instincts. (He tells everyone he’s 18, but everyone can tell that he's really 16, which feels strange, since Martin is 20 and could pass for older more easily than younger.) He also appeals to the writers as a handy device to inspire the kind of self-reflection that, in a lead character in a TV series, usually means either an approaching exit or a bid for an Emmy. “The LAPD,” Johnson tells Rusty, who’s obsessed with finding his long-lost mother, “just wants to protect you from a very bad man.” “Bad men are how I make my living,” says Rusty. This causes Johnson to collapse in her husband’s arms, babbling about how she, too, makes her living from the pursuit of bad men, and will never see her mother again. (Johnson’s mother, played by Frances Sternhagen, recently died, as part of an irritating bait-and-switch storyline that was supposed to trick viewers into thinking that it would be her father—Barry Corbin—who'd get carried out of the series feet first.)
Rusty, inexplicably, is slated to be carried over into Major Crimes. Maybe that’s TNT’s way of injecting some youth into the format, since many of the other actors who’ll be sticking around—including Tony Denison, Michael Paul Chan (formerly of Barry Schindel and Michael Mann’s great, cruelly short-lived 2002 series Robbery Homicide Division) and G.W. Bailey—are now in their 60s and look too long in the tooth to be chasing down perps on the mean streets of L. A. (Bailey’s presence in the squad room is especially incongruous in this regard, given that, since he played Sgt. Rizzo on M*A*S*H and has always looked pretty much the same, it’s hard to shake the impression that he’s been middle-aged since the Korean War.) McDonnell’s scenes on The Closer have mostly been about establishing how quiet and composed she is, and how conventional she is in her work methods, compared to the relatively jittery and offbeat Brenda Leigh. The last episode of The Closer grows increasingly insane as it tries to wrap things up in an exciting way, which may be taken as a sign of how far the show has degenerated. But unless there’s a previously undetected streak of wild woman in Mary McDonnell, insanity, or even mild liveliness, may be something that Monday nights on TNT will soon lack.