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'The Closer' is getting better and better

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Warning: What follows will be a gushy, barely objective look at a pioneering TV show that I don't think gets nearly enough credit for the ground it has broken: TNT's The Closer.

On the surface, it's a well-done cop drama, centered on the kind of quirky crime solver today's TV audiences love — in this case, Kyra Sedgwick's Southern belle-turned-ace Los Angeles deputy police chief Brenda Leigh Johnson.

But as it starts a sixth season tomorrow, The Closer also stands as an impressive mix of unassuming talent and good luck; an appealing grab bag of half a dozen television trends we now know viewers love, thanks in part to this show's blockbuster success.

I happened to catch an episode from the show's initial 2005 season last week, not long after watching the first two episodes of this season, and it is amazing how much has changed.

When Sedgwick first ambled onscreen in Johnson's flower print dresses and syrupy-sweet Georgia accent, the CIA-trained cop, hired by a former flame to lead the fictional major crimes unit in Los Angeles, was a walking argument for women's independence. Fighting for respect from other managers and the cops she supervised in a mostly male environment, Johnson struggled to be fully feminine in a world eager to see that as a weakness, pursuing her own odd methods for closing cases in the bargain.

While that may have felt like a grittier, more creative tone for a typical cop drama, producers wised up and gave Johnson allies in her immediate boss, T.K. Simmons' assistant chief Will Pope and all the detectives in her squad. Convinced of her talent and smarts by the start of the second season, they have become a family of charismatic characters viewers can't wait to hang with each year.

It's an obvious progression: TV series start out as a concept, but find success as a character study. In The Closer's case, that means producers have searched for new ways to shake up this family of close-knit characters, from nearly killing tough guy Detective Julio Sanchez to sending Johnson down the aisle for a smackdown from her toughest nemesis yet: married life.

This season, the family gets another jolt, as Pope supervises the department's move into a glitzy new multimillion-dollar headquarters — mirroring the LAPD's real-life transition — and positions himself to become the next chief. But a new candidate emerges to throw everything in disarray, while Johnson chases down a murder that may have been committed by a pal of the mayor.

Here's a few more reasons why I still love The Closer, which returns for its sixth season at 9 p.m. Monday, on TNT:

Created a haven for women of a certain age: Glenn Close's Damages, Holly Hunter's Saving Grace, Mary McCormack's In Plain Sight and Jada Pinkett Smith's HawthoRNe all followed The Closer's success, which proved actresses who might be aging out of contention for big film roles could find greater challenges on cable TV.

Delivers great mysteries: Some cop shows make the crimes so obtuse, you can't tell what happened even after they slap the cuffs on the bad guy (yes, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, I mean you). And House's medical mysteries are so formulaic, you can set your watch by them (a seizure or attack in the first 15 minutes, solution falls about 10 minutes before show's end). The Closer keeps serving up interesting but not outlandish crimes, along with all the cool character stuff.

Has a wonderful relationship at its core: The bond between Johnson and her now-husband FBI agent Fritz Holland (Jon Tenney) is another delicious touch. Starting as the perfect boyfriend — supportive and sensitive when necessary, but willing to challenge her if necessary — Tenney's Holland has revealed an alcoholic past and a new career success that may lead to conflict with his wife.

Can't wait to see where that goes this season.

More 'Closer' descendants debut this week

A couple of new cable shows start up this week, following in a path The Closer has pioneered. Here's what they learned and didn't from the example.

'Rizzoli & Isles,' debuts at 10 p.m. Monday on TNT

What they learned: Debuting as a companion to The Closer, this series features two super-capable crime-solving women, Angie Harmon's hard-charging detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander's cerebral, upper-class medical examiner Maura Isles. These women solve their own problems, with Harmon's Rizzoli using a stun gun to best one bad guy and a softball bat to take out another.

What they didn't: This show's focus on Harmon — who doesn't come off as an Italian in Boston, despite having Chazz Palminteri and Lorraine Bracco playing her parents — belies the show's packaging as a buddy drama. And some story lines, including the possible return of the Boston Strangler, are absurd enough to spark laughs.

'Covert Affairs,' debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on USA

What they learned: Coyote Ugly alum Piper Perabo excels in playing a plucky, talented expert in languages who finds herself plucked from CIA training school to carrying out covert missions in days. She's a lovelorn prodigy just discovering her own abilities, surrounded by duplicitous colleagues and unaware there's a hidden reason why she's on the front lines.

What they didn't: Perabo's Annie Walker is a little too ineffective, relying on all the guys around her to solve problems, particularly an old flame who saves her life during a mission. Brenda Leigh would never approve.

. Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band

Featuring Edgar Winter, Gary Wright, Rick Derringer, Richard Page, Wally Palmar and Gregg Bissonette. Tuesday, 8 p.m. $49, $75. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. (727) 791-7400.

'The Closer' is getting better and better 07/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 19, 2010 5:20pm]

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