PJ Media

The Closer: Television's Top Cop Drama

“If there’s one thing our government has successfully proven it can’t do at all, it’s find illegal aliens.”

So says Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) at a key moment in “Tijuana Brass,” a television episode from the newly released DVD The Closer: The Complete Fourth Season.

“Tijuana Brass” engages big problems like ruthless Mexican drug gangs and official corruption. Tough questions are posed. What if the lofty moral ambitions of the sanctuary movement were put to the test? Can the seal of the confessional be pried open at the edges to prevent an impending murder? Does law enforcement sometimes need to engage its adversaries on their own terms?

Because The Closer is set in Los Angeles, there are also political complications. What sort of PR judo can turn around meddlesome media scrutiny and institutional oversight? How much deference should our police show to the visiting Tijuana commandante or to an earnest barrio prelate? This is all tied together in just over forty-three minutes with a surprising twist ending sure to satisfy justice-seekers on all sides of the immigration controversy.

Well, maybe not the ACLU, but hey, this is a cop show!

The Closer is the outstanding law enforcement drama on television today. Now in its fifth season on TNT, it’s been the top rated scripted show on ad-supported cable since its inception. Much of the credit goes to Sedgwick, as a brittle, vulnerable woman who has slowly earned the respect of her mostly male team of elite detectives. Her specialty is the interrogation room confession scene, hence the program’s name.

Pioneered by shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street in the 1990s, confession scenes offer up a satisfying blend of moral clarity, certain resolution, and assignment of responsibility. Interrogations by homicide detectives are also a whole lot less expensive that action shootouts and much more realistic than confrontations between criminals and guys who lift fingerprints.

Another reason The Closer rates atop the list of current crime dramas is its faithful portrayal of police as basically heroic, and criminals as reprobates who should proceed directly to jail. For the first fifty years of television, this could be taken for granted. In this decade we’ve gone from one fascinating family of wrongdoers worth watching (The Sopranos) to shows built around a serial killer, a chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, a housewife dealing pot, etc.

The detectives in The Closer work hard to achieve just outcomes. They are not a gang of bandits hiding behind the badge, nor are they just setting the stage for wrong-minded legal polemics to follow. Another plus: the workplace in The Closer is demographically diverse. It’s a pleasure to watch a show where characters are actually trying to do their jobs and not continually sexed-up and obsessing over their next youthful indiscretion.

Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson does have a love interest, FBI Agent Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney.) One of the joys of the Fourth Season DVD is watching this relationship move slowly towards the altar over its fifteen episodes, despite the efforts of Brenda’s parents (Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen) and Fritz’ sister (Amy Sedaris) to help out.

While “Tijuana Brass” is the DVD’s most provocative individual episode, à la carte Netflix renters are strongly advised not to miss “Dial ‘M’ for Provenza.” This lighter episode features the mature Detective Provenza (G.W. Bailey) in a botched undercover sting operation targeting a self-absorbed Beverly Hills wife (guest star Jennifer Coolidge) eager to become a widow. You may recall Coolidge from her terrific comedic performances in the improvised films of Christopher Guest. This is as good as her best work there and probably the most inspired episodic comedy performance of the year. I’ve seen “Dial M for Provenza” six times, and it’s still laugh-out-loud funny.

Special features include observational tips from an FBI interrogator and a ride-along with retired LAPD Detective Mike Bercham — who shares a writing credit on “Tijuana Brass” with series creator James Duff.

Ever since Joe Friday pinned on badge 714, police dramas have informed popular understanding of law enforcement. Columbo, another Los Angeles-based cop, was a huge hit in the 1970s. Hill Street Blues revolutionized the genre in the 1980s, then NYPD Blue perfected its execution a decade ago. During all those years crime was front and center on the nation’s agenda. Even in the conservative community, law and order issues don’t get as much play today as they did when Nixon ran on the issue or while Giuliani was cleaning up New York.

Perhaps if we spent more time following positive stories about law enforcement professionals, it would elevate consciousness and support for crime fighters in our culture.

New episodes of The Closer air Monday nights on TNT, all summer.