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Life After Brenda Leigh: Majors Crimes Carries on After The Closer

  • Alex Wainer Contributing Writer
  • 2012 8 Sep
Life After Brenda Leigh: <i>Majors Crimes</i> Carries on After <i>The Closer</i>

Most of the best television series are based on our familiarity with likeable characters. Unlike film, where we meet extreme characters for two hours in a theater, television, a living room medium, downsizes and domesticates its characters to make them palatable to a mass audience. The smaller screen makes television an intimate medium that favors close-ups and so encourages almost a friendship with a show's cast. And when a popular show finally leaves the air, it leaves a hole that networks sometimes try to fill by creating a spinoff from that little world to perpetuate the audience's viewership. This doesn't happen often and even then, not usually successfully. 

The late Andy Griffith's legendary self-titled show invoked the American love of small-town and rural life, left behind by urban migration, by having an authentic country boy be the calm center of a town of eccentrics. When Griffith left after eight seasons, CBS created Mayberry RFD, to successfully perpetuate the community's stories featuring a new lead but with many of the same characters. The highly rated M*A*S*H* followed its Army surgeons through 11 seasons during the three-year Korean War and again, CBS not wanting to lose the franchise, carried several characters, but not the leads, over into a stateside V.A. hospital with the too cleverly titled AfterMASH which was canceled nine episodes into its second season, after apparently running out of the good will of viewers. This uncertainty about such sequel series illustrates the risk incurred when major characters depart and the fundamental nature of the program alters.

And so it is that TNT hopes to retain the large audience from The Closer, for its successor series, Major Crimes, and any review of the new show must consider its predecessor. Kyra Sedgwick was one of the first established movie actors to star in a cable series and though cable shows were typically smaller budgeted than broadcast network series, The Closer's production values and the star's charisma made it an instant hit for TNT, opening the door for other film stars to do television series. Brenda Leigh Johnson, formerly of the Atlanta police and trained by the CIA, was named "the closer" for her ability to obtain confessions that led to convictions. Sedgwick's Emmy-winning performances depicted Johnson as a passionate and intuitive pursuer of criminals who sometimes used ethically questionable tactics to bring about justice. Supported by an unusually colorful supporting cast, the series had the type of character rapport that engaged audiences on several levels.  

When TNT announced that Sedgwick had decided seven seasons was enough, the production company soon began working on an exit strategy for the lead character and news arrived that a new series would follow with most of the same cast but with Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) taking over the Major Crimes Division, after previously being Brenda's antagonist from Internal Affairs.  Whereas Brenda Leigh was emotional and impulsive in tracking down perpetrators, McDonnell's Captain Sharon Rader is coolly rational and soft spoken as she manages a team of mostly male detectives. Both series elevated middle-aged career women as lead characters rather than implausibly youthful beauties of traditional television. The Closer used its last season to set up the new series with a series of lawsuits charging that Brenda had taken ethical shortcuts to gain confessions and so the LAPD was cracking down on the division's less than by-the-book procedures. The tagline for the new series is "Beyond Confession, There's Conviction," and the series is stressing, much to the veteran detectives' unease, plea bargaining as budget saving measures. 

The senior ranking MCD detective, Lt. Louie Provenza (G.W. Bailey) is also displeased that he was passed over for head of the division in favor of Rader but he may come to admit that she is more level-headed than he is. Rader knows she has to make her confessions stick and a Deputy District Attorney is assigned to work with them in the plea bargaining process. The first episode seemed to promise something like Law & Order negotiations between suspect's lawyer and the team rather than the Closer's gripping interrogations where Brenda Leigh's drilling dramatically exposes the guilt of her prey. But later episodes may work toward their own dramatic conviction-winning methods. Another new division member, officer Amy Sykes (Kearran Giovanni) is trying to advance through kissing up to her superiors but may yet prove a worthy addition.

Some viewers may fine McDonnell's Rader to be too under control in leading her division, reminding them more of buttoned down schoolmarm. That makes her a good contrast to her predecessor but a little too icy to connect with. To give Rader something of a home life, she has taken in a teenaged material witness Rusty Beck (Graham Patrick Martin), a lookalike for a youthful Leonardo DeCaprio, who was found to be abandoned by his mother in the last episode of The Closer. The street kid is uncooperative for the divorced mother of grown children so we get to see Rader face a situation that cannot be left at the office. But the situation feels like an extremely contrived device found only on television and it's hard to see this working long term.

The producers of Major Crimes clearly hopes to carry on the franchise without its original star and I don't know yet whether the new show can carry the same electric charge without Sedgwick's voltage. The new cast dynamics, more ensemble than star-driven now, may take awhile to gel into a successful formula and maybe then viewers like me can watch this crime show with more conviction.  

*This review First Published 9/8/2012 

**Watch Major Crimes Mondays on TNT