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.