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."
In seven years, The Closer has managed a remarkable feat. It has offered a distinctive character who reinvented the female cop's image on TV while presenting a crime series popular enough to average more than 8 million viewers a night in its last airings.
As the show returns Monday, Sedgwick's Johnson is still coping with fallout from the legal battle over her decision to leave a suspect in his home, knowing his fellow gang members planned to kill him.
In Monday's episode, old nemesis Philip Stroh, the lawyer and rapist who avoided justice in a previous episode, resurfaces to bedevil Johnson as her investigative hands are tied by a settlement.
But one long-running question is finally answered: Who was that mole who kept leaking the Major Case Squad's inner workings to the lawyer suing Johnson ? (No, it's not who you think it is, and yes, it's based on a true story.)
We also see her face the possibility that her boss and former lover, Chief Will Pope, might not be so trustworthy. And she must deal with a personal loss forcing her to confront how much of her life she has focused on work.
"I think a lot of people have been trying to tell her she's making choices she's going to regret in the future," Sedgwick said. "It's like that Cat's in the Cradle frikkin' song. You reach a certain point in your life, usually in your 30s, where you say … I didn't realize I was making these choices, but I guess I really have and this is what my life looks like."
Duff described the situation more simply. "There's a price people have to pay to follow their dreams and someday the bill arrives," he said. "That's what happens in the finale."
Fans might be surprised to learn Duff considers Johnson and Pope to be two halves of his ego — ambition and idealism on one side, pragmatism on the other. The struggle between those themes in the workplace "is what The Closer is really about," he said.
Along the way, he created a character in Johnson who is tough but fragile. She is strong enough to challenge LAPD bureaucracy, but weak enough to scarf junk food for emotional release.
"I often, you know, sit there in movies and sometimes watch TV and think, 'Who is that person (onscreen)? That's not like any woman I know,' " said Sedgwick. "I said to James, 'If I'm going to be in people's living rooms, I have to be a real and relatable character.' What I loved about Brenda was she was very much a woman who didn't apologize for being a woman and didn't leave her femininity at home."
Sedgwick's only regret as her show ends is that they never found a way to give her a female friend.
The move to Major Crimes means losing J.K. Simmons as Chief Pope (he co-stars in ABC's new comedy The Family Tools debuting this fall) and Corey Reynolds' Detective David Gabriel (he has a talent deal with NBC).
In Major Crimes, the LAPD joins forces with the district attorney's office to get convictions in murder cases strong enough to cut down the expense of trying murder cases. "The Closer ended with a confession. We now end with a conviction," Duff said.
And the producer insists The Closer ends five weeks from Monday with a moment he has been driving to from the beginning of the series, played perfectly by Sedgwick.
"It's not about the crime … 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," he said. "And I put every second of it on film."