Police Procedurals Re-Examined
Part 1: How The Closer Subtly and Damaged Police Drama and the Female Centered Show
Given all the protests of the last summer, the police procedural has come under intense scrutiny. I myself took a deeper look at it in August, paying particular attention to the work of Dick Wolf and how his view of police has served as both propaganda and a normalization of some of the more intense police behavior over the past two decades.
I should add I don’t feel the same universal revulsion for so many of the cop dramas that have been seen under a new light; I still feel that Homicide and The Wire did a lot of good work exposing the flaws of the politics of policing and how it has failed the war on drugs. I also believe that The Shield probably took a closer look at the level of brutality we are willing to tolerate for our own safety, and provided no easy answers, even at the end.
But in retrospect, there are quite a few procedurals that have done a lot of damage to how the viewers feels that policing should be done — and unlike so many, the flaws were very evident at the time, we just chose to overlook them. In this article, I’m going to look at one in particular that always made me feel just a bit uncomfortable at how justice should be done.
In the summer of 2005, TNT — a network which had spent the last few years experimenting with original programming, but had yet to come with a commercial success — debuted The Closer. The series focused on the LAPD’s new Priority Homicide Division, made up of various officers in the unit, headed by a former FBI agent named to head the division from Atlanta Brenda Lee Johnson, memorably played by Kyra Sedgwick. Perhaps a warning sign should’ve been given right then. Given the history of Southern police officers and their relationship with minorities (an issue which would become central the longer the series went on), was the series sending a message as to how justice would be meted out right then?
Brenda seemed determined to step on everybody’s toes right from the start. Her entire unit threatened to resign because of her behavior less than fifteen minutes in the Pilot, and she would tear up all their letters after receiving them. (As a sign of solidarity, they would offer them to the captain again at the end of the season.) Another sign of trouble, she would accept their help but she would always view their opinions with a certain level of disdain. They all seemed to respect her for it, but I’m not sure that’s the best relationship for any superior to have with her fellow detectives.
I should add that this series had a superb supporting cast: J.K. Simmons would play Chief Pope, who brought her in from Atlanta to head up his division; it would later be revealed he had affair with her. Jon Tenney would play FBI agent Fritz Howard, who would eventually become her boyfriend and then her husband; perhaps not coincidentally, he would be the only person who would be able to handle her. Veteran actors G.W. Bailey and Anthony Denison would play Lieutenants Provenza and Flynn, who provide much of the humor with their back and forth. Raymond Cruz, who would have a memorable stint on Breaking Bad, played the hot-tempered Detective Sanchez. Also, the series would have one of the most racially balanced casts in any procedural up to that point: Corey Reynolds would play Detective Gabriel, who eventually became her most trusted man on the force, and Michael Patrick Chan would play Lieutenant Tao, the units most technically advanced officer.
All of this should be applauded, but the series never resolved the problems with Chief Johnson. I can’t help but think that so much of the criticism that should normally be applied to the faults in Johnson’s policing were overlooked because she was a woman. Any one of the flaws she demonstrated would have represented as a cliché from a male chief (I’m thinking of Frank Furillo from Hill Street Blues as my top example) but just sailed over everybody’s head. For one thing, she constantly butted heads with the brass over every minute detail of the handling for the case. In the entire series, I don’t recall a single incident of her willingly working with the higher-ups. It wasn’t the protect her men, as so many of the other chiefs have done in the past; it came across more as an inconvenience to her personally. This was trivial some of the time, but a lot of the time you really wondered if she cared. I remember an incident when she was involved in hit and run, and rather than file out an accident report, she ignore the head of traffic division so she could work on her case. She never did fill out the report; instead, she had Chief Pope give the man a commendation to get her off her back.
Much more disturbing was how she handled things on the rare occasion that a criminal should escape justice. Every season or so, if a criminal couldn’t be sent the prison, she arranged things so he would face justice by other means — usually being killed. Never mind that every cop seemed willing to wink at this (that was disturbing enough) , it made her seem like the kind of cop who believed the victims priority superseded justice. After the series was on just a couple of seasons, I started to feel the rare case of empathizing more with the murderer than the police. This was helped because, like in so many case, in a lot of cases the perpetrators were often deeply stupid, but a lot of their reasons were sympathetic. Brenda just seemed to wash them all off, which says more about her than anything else.
This became incredibly clear during what would be the series most critical arc near the back half of The Closer’s run. After a gang member nicknamed ‘Shootin’ Newton confessed to killing three men and walked away because of an offer an immunity that had been given to him before full knowledge of his crimes, Brenda drove Newton home. It was evident that his gang, who’d known he’d been snitching, was there and they were armed. Johnson let him enter his home with no police protection. He was murdered almost immediately afterward, and she just drove away.
Johnson, I repeat, was a white woman. Newton was African-American. This was one of the most cold-blooded acts I’ve ever seen on television. And for the rest of the series, Brenda never even considered she’d done some wrong.
For the last two seasons of the show, the LAPD was involved with a wrongful death lawsuit from the Newton family. Everything Brenda did was put under a microscope. (I’ll get to the person who did in the next part of my review.) She hired a lawyer, her team was all served with subpoenas, and it became clear there was a leak in her department. If there was any sign of person guilt or a need to take some kind of personal measures, Brenda never showed it. Indeed, she was more than willing to giving her particular lying statements to the police in front of her lawyer.
And at this point, I should probably get to the center of what made The Closer unique: Brenda eliciting confessions. Now there was nothing new about lying to your suspect during an interrogation: I’d delighted to Lennie Briscoe and Frank Pembleton doing it for years. But knowing what we know about how police get confessions these days, the sheer amount of lying that Brenda did was frankly overblown and over the top. And I find it very telling that in the entire run of the series, every person she interrogated was always guilty. She never made a mistake. I realize that’s how most procedurals work, but it was central to The Closer. If there had ever been an innocent person who confessed to a crime because of the lies Brenda told, the whole series would’ve fallen apart. And often the lies were so outrageous, the viewer could tell without needing to be told. But as we are very aware of now, most suspects can’t. So there were never any consequences for Brenda on that end.
As for the lawsuit, her lawyer clearly thought she was guilty, but nevertheless managed to get the suit dismissed. When Newton’s lawyer filed a class action based on the victims of the murders by proxy that had taken place throughout the series, it was brought down when that lawyer was connected to another crime. And the only consequences of the lawsuit was that Brenda’s name would be associated with an exception for bad practices. And that’s what upset her the most. Not the fact that she had been responsible for so many people’s deaths, but because it affected her reputation at the LAPD. A reputation, by the way, she never cared about as long as the work was getting done. (There were at least a couple of occasions where she had to be forced into being considered for a promotion.)
So there were no consequences for any of her actions. Even when the series ended, she was still stretching the boundaries willing to break any rule to get a killer locked up. (Of course the killer was one of the ones that make the murderers in Criminal Minds seem modest…but we’ll get to that a little later) The only consequence, she moved over to the DAs office, and followed a different path.
And I should mention that much of this series played as a light-hearted comedy, some of which had to do with Flynn and Provenza, but most of which dealt with the silliness of the crimes. It doesn’t change the fact that this series painted a picture of one of the most twisted and ruthless law enforcement figures in the history of the medium — who we were supposed to root for because she kept reaching for chocolate out of her bag.
And then, somehow, there was a spinoff of this same series that managed to do almost everything right. I’ll get to that in the next entry.