TNT's The Closer attempts a historic switcheroo as star Kyra Sedgwick steps aside for Mary McDonnell
James Duff knows he's trying something that may never have been attempted before in the history of television.
It's a complex switcheroo where star Kyra Sedgwick and two of her most prominent co-stars from TNT's hit crime drama The Closer will say goodbye. But the rest of the cast stays intact, headed by a character played by guest star Mary McDonnell in a series with a new name, Major Crimes.
Out goes Sedgwick's master interrogator for the Los Angeles police, Brenda Leigh Johnson; in comes McDonnell's by-the-book Capt. Sharon Raydor.
Forget about spinoffs such as Frasier or After M*A*S*H. This is a series transplant of major proportions.
And as the last six Closer episodes begin airing this week, no one knows better than Duff, executive producer and creator of both The Closer and Major Crimes, how easy it would be to mess it all up.
"It's the largest opportunity I've ever had to fail in spectacular fashion," he said, laughing heartily. "I went from looking at the abyss (of unemployment) into which I was about to fall, into looking at a great opportunity."
For Sedgwick, the segue was a unique opportunity to avoid some serious guilt. As the show's title star, her decision to stop playing The Closer after seven years could have meant that Duff, her co-stars and the show's crew would have had to find other work.
Then TNT kept the show going, allowing her to enjoy the farewells for a finely sculpted character without the bittersweet knowledge that her artistic decisions were costing other people their jobs.
"It weighed on me heavily at first, that awareness," said Sedgwick, a bit of relief still audible in her voice. "One of the reasons why, you know, I wanted to end the show when I did was because I would just never want to go over the same ground. And I feel like we (avoided) that; we did give her an honorable and interesting sendoff, and I feel like that was my job."
If you want to irritate Duff, though, talk about Sedgwick "quitting" The Closer.
"I want to emphasize this: She didn't quit," said the executive producer. "She had a contract, she fulfilled it brilliantly. She had the largest speaking role on television for a long time and that's hard. It's like running a marathon."
He recalled a moment, while filming during the first season, when Sedgwick pulled him aside. Both had been working long hours and "were practically zombies" trying to finish everything.
"She started crying, and she said, 'Will we ever be given a moment to enjoy this?' Well, now she's having that moment."
Here's a sample of the rest of my interview with Duff, who was so excited about what he's doing, that he even dropped a few serious spoilers about what's coming on The Closer (worry not -- they have been clipped out).
Me: How did you wind up in this unique situation?
Duff: “The day after Kyra sort of announced her retirement to the cast...(Turner Entertainment Networks president) Steve Koonin called me the next morning and said 'We’re going to go on doing the show.' I said 'Well, it’s called The Closer.' And he said 'we’ll change the title...you’re going to put Mary McDonnell in the lead and you’re going to keep on doing the show.
"I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I felt like it was a fantastic challenge. I wasn’t being offered a pilot, I was being offered a series. And it was with most of the people that I loved. I love my job. I love the people I work with. It as like a – I went from looking at the abyss in which I was about to fall, into looking at a great big opportunity."
What it is like to try going on without Kyra or J.K. Simmons' Chief Pope? (costar Corey Reynolds, who plays Det. David Gabriel, also isn't returning)
“They are the two halves of my ego. I wrote them both from my own point of view, virtually. It was their -- their awkward relationship is my awkward relationship in life. The struggle between my ambition and my work – the struggle between idealism and pragmatism; the struggle between balancing life and work. All of those things, which is what The Closer is really about, as well as being a workplace show. Saying good buy to the two halves of this coin – that was a really difficult process, one that I still mourn."
I heard she waited until she was leaving the show to buy a house in Los Angeles (she, husband Kevin Bacon and their children live in New York).
"My affection for Kyra knows no bounds – she is the bomb. But the only time I’ve ever gotten irritated with her; she lived in New York all this time and then she bought a house five blocks from me (laughs). Kevin (Bacon) said 'Don't try to make sense of our crazy life.' I have to work all weekend long, trying to catch up typing like a mad person. Every now and then I look up and think she’s lying on her sofa catching up on her DVR while I’m paying the bills."
Tell me about Kyra's last scene for The Closer.
“She was amazing in it. She played the moment I was always driving to through the entire run of The Closer and she does it brilliantly. That moment is my very favorite moment in the entire run. It’s not about the crime. Well, it is and it isn’t. It is about her personal life and the way she identifies with a tragic witness and how she suddenly sees her life and what it's made of her. It was an amazing momet and I put every second of it on camera.
"I felt like Brenda needed a major personal thing to shake her up. When she leaves, you understand she needs to go. She’s finally taking responsibility for what she did. That last a scene where she’s weeping on the bed with Fritz. She acknowledges the price in the finale. The fact is, to do anything really well there is so much else you must just let go of. There a price to pay for that. This big story about 'Can women have it all?' is so ridiculous; nobody can have it all. There’s a price people have to pay to follow their dreams and someday the bill arrives – that’s what happens in the finale. For all the good that you’ve done; here’s the bill. I almost called (the episode) that, The Price. But them someone pointed out to me Arthur Miller also had a really good play with that name (laughing).”
What can you say about the new show, Major Crimes?
"This new world is built on the economic reality of the present day justice system. In California, it is illegal to plead guilty to murder when the death penalty is attatched. Your fate must be determined by a jury. Whatever you think about the death penalty, it is outrageously expensive to pursue. We can’t even pay the LAPD for overtime. A lot of those things are both demoralizing and expensive. We are combining forces with the district attorney’s office to finish off these cases. Before, The Closer ended with a confession; we end with a conviction – we try to get a conviction as part of the deal. It’s not always pleasant to see how this works...(And) the division goes through it at the same time as the audience. It is not smooth.”
Since Mary's character, Sharon Raydor, has been such an antagonist for the major crimes squad, will the new show feel more like the first season of The Closer, where the detectives resented and disrespected Brenda Leigh?
“There are some things that mimic that dynamic, but it is a different problem. (Raydor) spent her entire career in internal affairs. She is a policy maiden and she likes the rules and she wants to play by the rules and she insists that other people play by the rules. Brenda has a tendency to bend the rules. So it’s a different look, it’s a different perspective.”
Kyra told me the one thing she never accomplished on The Closer that she wanted, was for Brenda Leigh to have female friends.
“It's true, she wanted a female friend for Brenda. But I have a cast of a thousand people and I only have so much time to cut story footage and I have to have a murder. I wanted to give the character more of a personal life, but (Kyra) ultimately required a day off every now and then. I kept saying to her I will kill you – you’ll end up dead. She had the largest speaking role on television for a long time and it was....it’s harder than running a marathon. A marathon you get to rest afterwards. With us, every week you are running."
What do you hope the audience is left with, once they see the last six episodes of The Closer?
“I hope they’ll understand why Brenda is no longer here. (And) I hope they will agree with what we did. I want so badly to have them feel good about the last episode. And I just feel so grateful to the audience for going with us so far. I don’t want disappoint people. I’ve worked to make it honest and I hope they agree with me.”