Police Procedural Problems: Interrogations Edition, Part 2
How Major Crimes Fixed Most of the Problems With The Closer
In the opening minutes of Major Crimes, Detective Andy Flynn (Tony Denison) is about to interrogate a suspect after a robbery-homicide. He tells the audience his method: he’s going to soften the suspect out, and then when he asks for a lawyer, one of his fellow detectives will impersonate one. He spends a couple of minutes talking to the suspect, and just as he goes out to ask for an ‘attorney’, a shot rings out at the suspect is killed. Though no one could have known at the time, this murder in the Pilot fundamentally changed how the writers of The Closer were going to approach policing in the continuation of their arc.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, one of the more important recurring characters in the back half of The Closer was Sharon Rayder, brilliant played by Mary McConnell. As the representative of the Force Investigation Unit (the LAPD’s equivalent of Internal Affairs) Rayder may have been introduced to serve as the clichéd nemesis to Brenda Johnson. Almost from the beginning of the procedural, the kind of cop that police that police are always presented as the heavies. You know the type: the cops who prevent ‘real policework’ from being done, even if that policework should involving shooting an unarmed man in cold blood or even worse, trying to convince that same cops’ partner that the shooting was not justified. And given her early appearances, which involved police involved shootings, it would have been hard not to view Captain Rayder the same way.
But one of the better developments of the last season was showing Rayder as a character who was the opposite of the coin that Chief Johnson represented: someone who believed in justice for all, but who didn’t want to violate the rights of the accused to do it. During the ‘Shootin’ Newton investigation and lawsuit, Rayder took on the harder job of trying to find the information leak in the department that Brenda stubbornly insisted wasn’t there. And even though it might have been in the department’s interest to for the suit to be settled, Rayder gently nudged Brenda away from doing so, out of a sense of compassion that perhaps no one else in the department had.
That didn’t mean Rayder hadn’t built up a huge amount of animosity within the rank and file in Brenda’s squad: when it was announced that Rayder was taking over the leadership in the Pilot of Major Crimes, there was a lot of hostility, particularly from Louie Provenza (G.W. Bailey) who had never much cared for her. But Rayder managed to generally earn the respect as the first season wore on.
One of the most significant changes in Major Crimes was the approach to interrogation. In almost every interrogation that took place on The Closer, Chief Johnson was always leading it, lying at every opportunity to the suspects. Rayder was occasionally in the room with the witnesses and suspects, but was far more inclined that Johnson ever was to delegate authority. Deception was allowed on occasion, but more often it was done in subtler ways — bringing in the family or friends of the victim without telling them the reason why they were doing so initially to gauge their reaction to the news. And the lion’s share of the interrogations involved far less deception even when the killer’s identity was known to the police. Perhaps this was less because confessions was no longer the goal the way it was with The Closer — it was getting pleas that wouldn’t take up trial dates. Indeed, representatives of the district attorney’s office who had almost non-existent in The Closer were in almost every episode of Major Crimes, almost certainly there to make sure the detectives did not step out of bounds.
And the investigation into the murders — which were less rigorous than they should have been on The Closer — actually made up the body of Major Crimes. Because all of the cops were required to do policework as opposed to just make Kyra Sedgwick look good, every character on the series’ IQ went up at least twenty point and they were allowed to have far more of a personality. Provenza and Flynn remained used for comic relief, but they were also allowed to let their years of experience count for something when it came to investigations. Sgt. Tao, mainly used for tech support on The Closer, was allowed to show how his technology expertise proved a person’s alibi. Detective Sanchez (Raymond Cruz) who mostly seemed inclined to yell at suspects was still angry but he was allowed to let his knowledge of expertise of gangs of LA and the low-class neighborhoods are relevant to crimes. And all of them were giving intriguing backstories in the way no one other than Brenda was on the series — Provenza, whose ex-wives had basically been used for comedy in the series, was allowed the awkward process of wooing an ER nurse who genuinely seemed to care about him and love him because of his flaws.
Because of the way that cops were more inclined to follow procedure in their investigations, even the stories that involved comedy seemed to give many characters more dimension. A prime example of this involved the Season 3 story ‘Frozen Assets’. Flynn and Provenza are called into an investigation by a security they knew from The Closer. In that episode ‘Richard Tracy’ (think about it) impersonate a cop, stole evidence from the unwitting police, and then spent the next several hours getting ahead of the investigators until Flynn and Provenza caught him. Brenda was utterly unable to break the personality of someone who was mentally ill, and it took some sweet-talking by Chief Pope to get him to go along with the investigation.
In ‘Frozen Assets’, ‘Tracy’ has clearly undergone psychiatric help, is on medication and is working as a security guard for a millionaire’s dog. He has called Flynn and Provenza for assistance because the dog has been poisoned and he thinks the ‘killer’ was also the one who killed the dog’s owner. This is still a comic episode to be sure, but it’s remarkable how the comedy involving ‘Tracy’ is allowed to develop from a more ‘rational’ point of view. At one point when everybody suspects he’s a conspirator, he goes in front of them and says: “I’m the culprit? That’s insane, and trust me: I know something about insanity.” Then he goes through a five point plan as to just how wrong they are…and all of his points are perfectly logical. And this time, he actually ends up solving the investigation. There is a comic ending that demonstrates he’s still not quite there, but in the context of the episode it’s hard to argue he hasn’t earned it.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of how far Major Crimes moved away from the type of policework that The Closer and so many other shows justified was in the fourth season story arc ‘Hindsight’. (Starting in Season 4, Major Crimes shifted more towards multi-episode investigations rather than individual ones; the final season would only feature the former.) The squad is called into investigate new evidence in the decade-old murder of a cop and a district attorney. One of the detectives goes to see a disgraced ex-detective Mark Hickman who investigated the crime and perjured himself on the stand (Jason Gedrick, who’s had experience in short-lived acclaimed procedurals like E-Z Streets and Boomtown.) His character was Tao’s former partner and he has never forgiven him for not backing up the lie he told.
Hickman represents every aspect of the bad, racist cop that you used to find in so many procedurals (NYPD Blue comes to mind as a prime example) In an early encounter with Amy Sykes, he insults her indirectly by saying: “The white man’s time is over.” Sykes retort of: “They had a good run’ is ignored. Hickman is rarely sober and utterly controlled by rage: in one episode, he goes into the residence of the dealer he was sure was guilty of the murder and points a gun to his head, demanding he confess. He comes into the office, drunk, insults everybody including his former partner, for ‘not having his back’. Tao, usually even-tempered, takes out his badge and gun, puts them on his desk, and walks out into the hall to beat him up, something that is only stopped by Rayder’s arrival on the scene. It is revealed that Hickman was having an affair with the ADA killed and eventually that the man he lost his job over was not responsible at all. And even at the end of the arc, he refuses to accept any responsibility for his actions or that his approach was wrong. “They’ll be a time when you need cops like me,” he says in one of his last lines to Sykes. But Major Crimes has made it more than clear that the kind of policing he — and the show he represented — is past.
Major Crimes was not a perfect series by any means, as I’ve illustrated in previous articles. But when it came to representing how the interrogation process and more importantly, the investigation process for the police drama should proceed, the series far outweighed the process we saw on The Closer. In that sense, Major Crimes may also be that rarest of things: a spinoff that was actually superior to the original.