Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

“Thank yew, Thank-yew Very Much!” The Closer Returns

sedwick.jpg Last November, after JoBloggs did an excellent guest post on “must read detective fiction for theologians” at Faith and Theology, I wrote a couple of posts generally related to this topic, because I have long been a fan of the genre.  My first post gathered together some long-time reflections I had on Columbo as a “class warrior,” the working stiff’s detective taking on the rich and powerful.  I also gave brief thoughts on fictional clergy detectives.

But now I want to express my delight that Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick) will be returning for a third season on TNT’s hit series, The Closer.  I have never liked the typical female detective, Nancy Drew, Miss Jane Marple, or Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.  I wanted to see female detectives who were stronger, more powerful characters, like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, a Chicago Private Eye who is as tough as Mike Hammer or Sam Spade or Robert Parker’s Spenser for Hire, and smarter than any of them to boot.

Kyra Sedgwick gives us that in Brenda Lee Johnson.  Trained in interrogation by the C.I.A., this Atlanta detective is brought into the Los Angeles Police Department to head their new Priority Homicide Unit–thereby alienating everyone who expected to be promoted from within the department and who resent being shown up by a Southern belle with an edge.  What a fantastic and complicated character: brilliant at her job, but lacking in the people skills necessary to negotiate office politics, and barely competent at personal relations outside the job.  Her Southern upbringing teaches her to be polite, but her constant “pleases” and “thank-yous” fail to disguise her ruthlessness and her pit-bull approach to problems, steamrolling whatever and whomever gets in her way.  Addicted to sweets, especially chocolates, she worries about her weight (despite being thin–probably as a result of extremely nervous energy), carries an enormous handbag, and is a deadly shot.  Her specialty is getting confessions during extremely tricky interrogations, and she hates to go into interrogation without already knowing all the answers to her questions.  She speaks 6 languages fluently, but, then she gets this new post in L.A.–and none of her languages is Spanish. Initially she can’t find her way around the city.

In a previous job with the CIA, she had an affair with her current (married) boss (played wonderfully by J.K. Simmons, minus the flat-top hair piece he uses to be J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman movies), but she refuses all attempts to rekindle the relationship.  Instead, she has a rocky romance with an FBI agent in L.A.  Meanwhile, her boss has to put up with her insubordination and the way her lack of people skills keeps getting him in political trouble–every time she solves another case.

Although Brenda Lee Johnson is clearly the top detective in the series, there is a great ensemble cast.  I’ve already mentioned J. K. Simmons as Assistant Police Chief Will Pope, L.A.P.D., a former CIA analyst who is now twice divorced and is a very hassled senior bureacrat.  Robert Gossett plays Commander (just promoted from Captain) Taylor, the head of L.A.P.D.’s Robbery-Homicide Department.  An able, and highly ambitious, African-American man who worked his way up through the ranks, he was passed over to head the Priority Homicide Unit and resents Deputy Chief Johnson as the “outsider from Atlanta” who has the job he believes should have been his.  (Taylor fails to see why he was passed over.  He is excellent as head of Robbery-Homicide because knows how to clear the massive numbers of routine robberies and homicides.  But lacks the ability to focus on what makes certain homicides priority and high profile–and he doesn’t want to take the time to give such cases the detail they need. Also, his skill at office politics–strong where Brenda is weak–means that he is more likely to avoid conflict with other departments even when should risk conflict for the sake of the case.) He works to undermine her at every opportunity and has repeatedly tried to get her fired. 

 Tony Denison plays Lt. Andy Flynn, who was initially loyal to Taylor, but who was gradually won over to Deputy Chief Johnson when he realized she rewards good performance in spite of personality conflicts, while Taylor was about to let him become a political scapegoat. (When Johnson expresses surprise at Flynn’s new loyalty since he has “never said one complimentary thing” to her since her arrival, Flynn replies, “You have great legs, Chief!” In a forgiving mood, Johnson does NOT have Flynn brought up on sexual harassment charges. 🙂 )

Gina Rivera plays Detective Irene Daniels, the only other woman on the Priority Homicide squad.  An extremely attractive African-American woman, she understands only too well the minefield that Deputy Chief Johnson has to negotiate. She has to bond with men who often pay more attention to her looks than her brains and earn their respect, but she also has to negotiate the ever-present politics of race.  Paul Chen plays Lt. Mike Tao, a Chinese-American, and (somewhat stereotypically) the highly educated squad expert on electronics and technology. 

G.W. Bailey plays Lt. Provenza, the “old-school” veteran cop of the squad who has seen it all. His dedication to the job has seen him divorced 4 times (twice from the same woman), and he barely tolerates the members of the squad with better education but less experience.  Raymond Cruz plays Detective Julio Sanchez, a Mexican-American born and raised in L.A. and an expert in Latino gangs.  He is quick tempered and chauvenistic and somewhat homophobic (he hated having to pose as a gay man in order to investigate one suspect), but his bi-lingual skills are essential–at least until Deputy Chief Johnson has a chance to add Spanish to her list of languages.  Sanchez was also the first of the Priority Homicide Squad to rally behind their new head instead requesting transfer back to Robbery-Homicide–probably because he knows what it means to be considered an outsider.

Detective Sergeant David Gabriel, played by Corey Reynolds, is a young, bright, ambitious African-American (called “college boy” by Provenza).  He started out a uniform cop, quickly made detective at Robbery-Homicide and, encouraged by then-Captain Taylor, earned an M.A. in Communications from U.C.L.A–with eyes to rising very far in the L.A.P.D. ranks.  The only person initially polite to Deputy Chief Johnson when she first arrived from Atlanta, Gabriel at first still wanted to transfer back to Robbery-Homicide, but Commander Taylor’s constant attempts to undermine Johnson’s work have caused Sergeant Gabriel to lose respect for him. Johnson has taken the young sergeant under her wing, giving him lessons in interrogation and investigation–to the resentment of other squad members who consider him a suck-up.

Completing the ensemble is Jon Tenney as F.B.I. Special Agent Fritz Howard, who is currently co-habitating with Deputy Chief Johnson.  Since her relationships with others in the L.A. branch of the F.B.I. have not always been cordial, their relationship has caused Special Agent Howard some career difficulties.  He humanizes Chief Johnson and gives her something to think about other than a narrow focus on the job.  He is also remarkably long-suffering–moving out and keeping his household goods in a U-Haul while Johnson’s mother was visiting from Atlanta so that she would not know they were living together. (Mom, herself an astute observer and capable of adding up evidence,  wasn’t fooled.)

Here is a great detective and an excellent drama well-acted by all concerned.  This is a feminist role, and one that shows the complications of sexual politics for professional women, today. (After all, many of the characteristics that colleagues find annoying in Deputy Chief Johnson, they admire in male colleagues.)  Here is detective fiction that goes beyond all the “Crime Scene” clones or the endless spinoffs of Law and Order.  Here is a detective as brilliant as P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, whose idiosyncracies (unlike Columbo’s) don’t disguise her intelligence, nor make her seem wildly unbelievable (like Tony Shalub’s Adrian Monk, who has more neuroses than an entire mental health clinic’s population).  She seems both likeable (unless you have to work with her) and believable.

There is absolutely no doubt as to why Sedgwick has won a Golden Globe for this role.  And this Southerner is very impressed with the way a native New Yorker has mastered a Georgian accent. (British and Aussie actors often do very well with American accents thanks to voice coaches. But for some reason, most Yankee actors are terrible with Southern accents. Sedgwick even understands the difference between a patrician Georgian accent, which her character has, and working class, “redneck” Georgian accents, which Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson would NEVER use.)

Now, to all those who are returning The Closer to us, I give a heart-felt, “Thank-yew. Thank-yew very much!”

June 18, 2007 - Posted by | detective fiction


  1. Yeah, and my wife is upset because she missed Monday’s premier…and…she’s going to miss Thursdays re-showing of the premier.

    I’m going to have to buy her sooooo many flowers, it’s going to look like Valentine’s Day!



    Comment by Tim Dahl | June 20, 2007

  2. Tim, is your wife’s scheduling problems somehow your fault?
    Do you have a VCR or know a friend who does who could tape the season opener re-run on Thursday? It could save you on flowers. The hassle of budget cuts to the department is not to be missed. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 20, 2007

  3. Great show.

    But her accent. Oh it kills me.

    The mom of my childhood bestfriend sounds just like Kyra. The “Southern Belle” thing has always driven me blinky. Shoot, when I visited Athens this weekend and saw my South Georgia friends, I immediately (and without thought) put on an accent. But that’s as far as the redneck in me goes. No smokeless Grizzly for me…

    Comment by bigdaddyweave | June 20, 2007

  4. Aaron (BDW), I thought you were gonna say that her accent killed you because it wasn’t genuine. But I think it’s pretty good for a 6th gen. New Yorker like Ms. Sedgwick.

    Wait. You now live in WACO! The accents there are far twangier and harsher than the gentle Southern accents of Georgia! C’mon!

    But Brenda Lee Johnson is not a “Belle” in the sense of spoiled, helpless, must-have-a-man, etc. She’s tough.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 20, 2007

  5. Michael: I always liked to read Sue Grafton’s female detective Kinsey Milhone who is in Grafton’s “ABC” mystery series. I’ve also enjoyed Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries. Right now, Susan & I are reading every Reginald Hill British mystery we can get our hands on.

    Comment by Kevin Borders | July 7, 2007

  6. Kevin, I’ve read a few if Sue Grafton’s ABC mysteries. They were okay, but lacked the punch I find in Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. I haven’t heard of Nevada Barr or Reginald Hill. Thanks for the tips.

    Kate and I have just discovered the “Ella Clah” mysteries by the spousal writing team of Aimee and David Thurlo. They are set on the Navaho reservation in New Mexico. (David Thurlo is Navaho and Aimee is from Puerto Rico.) Ella Clah left the Reservation as a young woman partly to get away from her tense family situation: a traditionalist mother and brother and a father who was a firebrand Christian preacher! So, she left and joined the FBI. Years later, she quits the FBI and returns to the Rez to investigate her father’s murder. Then she stays and becomes an investigator with the tribal police. The books are fun and one learns much about a culture that is different from any with which I was familiar.

    I am still liking this 3rd season of The Closer. Brenda Lee Johnson has become my favorite TV detective since Columbo!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 7, 2007

  7. Patrician Georgian accent?!? Sedgewick sounds like she’s doing a poor Will Ferrell’s George Bush. Her nasal, clipped, harsh attempt at an accent is a really bad West Texas or Middle Tennessee imitation. The actual Georgia accent, even the redneck one, is soft and mellifluent. I sure wish she would get a dialect coach.

    Comment by Foxy | September 4, 2007

  8. Will Gina Rivera’s character as Irene Daniels be returning to the show? I think something will be missing if she doesn’t. She and Corey Reynolds make such an interesting storyline; please don’t write her out.

    Comment by Robert Felder | June 29, 2009

  9. I don’t know, Robert. I wrote this at the beginning of season 3 and now at the beginning of season 5 Daniels has been promoted and transferred because of the conflict growing out of the disaster of her dating Sgt. Gabriel. I have no idea if she will guest star, be transferred back to Major Crimes (as Priority Homicide became) or what. I don’t think Irene Daniels liked the way her character was not being developed.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 30, 2009

  10. […] Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson of the great TNT series, The Closer.  See my tribute here. […]

    Pingback by My Top 25 Favorite Fictional Detectives « Levellers | July 1, 2009

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