Why haven't TV's other "lady cop" shows learned more from Kyra Sedgwick's The Closer?
Over the six years she has been slipping into the frilly pink dresses and sharp Southern twang of Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, Kyra Sedgwick has earned loads of rewards, including a seven-figure salary, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a People's Choice Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
There's one honor she seems to treasure above many others: creating a real, relatable female character on series television.
"When I decided to do a television show, it was crucial (the character) be someone whom women and people could relate to," Sedgwick said. "I'm not going to be in people's living rooms showing them some fantasy of a person. She is powerful, she is delicate, she is confused and struggling . . . it was important to me that she be real."
So when executive producer James Duff came to her with the idea for The Closer, a series centered on a former police officer from Atlanta who comes to Los Angeles and heads the police department's priority homicide division, both Duff and Sedgwick agreed.
Brenda had to be a real woman.
"When I was watching other procedurals, to me, it seemed the women were either so overtly sexualized that it was ridiculous or they might as well be shaving their faces," said Duff, who had written the pilot for The Closer when he met Sedgwick. "They seemed indistinguishable from men; even when they were attractive, they were attractive as law enforcement agents and not as women."
Now that Sedgwick, Duff and the rest of the Closer crew are preparing to wrap up the TNT series with a final, 21-episode season starting Monday, one question remains.
Why didn't TV cop shows learn more from Brenda Leigh Johnson?
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Sedgwick's success as an actor of a certain age on cable television likely inspired performers like Holly Hunter (Saving Grace), Glenn Close (Damages) and Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) to land on TV. But when it comes to female police officers and crime solvers on television, it seems they mostly still fit a certain stereotype.
The mold in this case was forged by the hero of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay's Detective Olivia Benson.
Given to leather jackets and low-cut shirts, Hargitay's Benson hides an awful secret: She was fathered by a rape. That's similar to backstory for Marg Helgenberger's CSI character, Catherine Willows, another devotee of plunging necklines who used to be a stripper.
Female crime fighters on shows such as Castle, In Plain Sight, Chase and V continued the trend with leather jackets, deep dark secrets, a tendency to beat up guys and an inability to have normal romantic relationships.
And there's more coming this fall, as NBC's new Prime Suspect remake and CBS's series about an ex-cop with perfect memory, Unforgettable, plow similar ground.
"Every time I see something like (a stripper turned blood spatter analyst) I'm like, 'A dude made that decision,' " said Erin Gibson, a comic, actor and commentator who put together a side-splitting piece for Current TV about lady cop stereotypes, coining the phrase "undercover strumpet."
Gibson's point: In an entertainment industry dominated by men, too many images of women still seem steeped in a guy's perspective.
"I'll (try out) for a hosting thing or a small part and they're like, 'We have to serve our audience, and our audience is guys and guys like to see boobs,' " Gibson said. "It's laziness, I think, because you can have a sexy character who guys can lust after and is complicated — and not because they use to be a stripper or have some sexual dysfunction."
Indeed, The Closer earned status as one of cable's most-watched series by breaking nearly every one of those rules.
Sedgwick's Johnson wears skirts and fusses over her makeup. She rarely confronts criminals physically, closing her cases by maneuvering subjects into confessing.
And she has spent most of the series in a single relationship, dating and marrying Jon Tenney's perpetually understanding FBI agent, Fritz Howard.
"I was told, 'Don't let her get married, that will end the show,' which was ridiculous," Duff said. "Marriage is not the end of a relationship. If anything, it's getting off the merry-go-round and getting on the roller coaster, because . . . you are tied to somebody. And the question becomes: 'Are you in this no matter what? Are you married no matter what?'
"The first season was about what it was like to be a woman in power in a man's world," he continued. "Then the second season was all about partnerships. And now it's all about family. (Johnson and her squad) are a tight, tight family . . . because it's more emotional when things happen in your family."
Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, agrees that The Closer challenges a wide range of TV cop show stereotypes.
"She's part feminist and part feminine; in order for her to be effective, she doesn't have to be like a man," Lauzen said. "That's very in tune with how women are thinking today: How do you be independent and empowered and feminine at the same time? In a lot of these (other) shows, there is no balancing act the women have to perform; their personal lives don't exist."
Unfortunately, for fans of the nuanced female lead exemplified in The Closer, the upcoming fall season offers a classic mix of good news and bad. Among 43 new shows planned on NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC and the CW, 25 star female characters or center on women. But many of those characters look to be disappointing stereotypes, from the sexy stewardesses in ABC's 1960s drama Pan Am to the bunnies working tables at NBC's The Playboy Club and the new Charlie's Angels reboot on ABC.
Lauzen, who assembles an annual census on employment in film and television, cited figures showing that just 25 percent of powerful producers, directors and executives are women.
"We are still talking about a primarily male view of the world — I would say white male upper-class view," she said, not surprised that some new shows, such as Tim Allen's ABC comedy about a macho guy in a house full of women, Last Man Standing, echo the theme of men feeling lost in a turbulent time.
"Because I have heard this economic climate might be worse for men than women, it might make sense that there's a bit of backlash . . . trying to put (women) back in their place," she said. "There might be an impulse to go back to a time when women aren't so powerful economically and socially."
On The Closer, Sedgwick and Duff don't seem concerned with such issues. Instead, they're focused on completing a story line that finds Johnson sued for releasing a suspected criminal into his own neighborhood, knowing his fellow gang members were planning to kill him.
Along the way, they must develop the show's only other major female character, Mary McDonnell's internal affairs investigator, Capt. Sharon Raydor, as the star of a 10-episode spinoff that TNT will air after The Closer ends, called Major Crimes.
"The case against (Johnson) intensifies and begins to interfere with her work, begins to threaten her job and then she has to get her own lawyer," Duff said. "It affects her finances, and I think we see a lot of what police officers go through when they are just doing their jobs."
Sedgwick, who is married to actor Kevin Bacon and asked to end the show after seven seasons to be closer to her family in New York City, just hopes to leave at the top of her game.
"The most challenging thing about wrapping up the show is that people are asking, 'Why are you leaving now, when everything's going so well?' " she said, laughing. "But I always figured: Let's leave while we're on top. Let's not have people begging us to go."