True Confessions

The Baltimore Sun

Kyra Sedgwick has her own personal take on the appeal of her hit cable series, The Closer, and it goes dead against the conventional wisdom of character growth as the key to great drama. Sedgwick believes LAPD Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson is such a fan favorite in large part because she shows no real growth, emotional or otherwise - ever.

"You know, it's funny, but that's sort of the thing about her, she's really not that changed since the start of the series," says Sedgwick, who also serves as co-executive producer. "I mean, she's not someone who looks inward. She's not interested in growing emotionally and psychologically as a person. She's not on a journey to internal emotional growth. She's just not. I mean, her lack of self-knowledge is shocking - and I think that's different."

In her lack of introspection, Chief Johnson is certainly different from such late, great, big-city TV detectives as NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) or Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) of Homicide: Life on the Street, who were always wrestling with personal demons and tortured with guilt about not being better human beings.

But not so far away from some great English TV detectives like Inspector Morse (John Thaw) or Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) in series that emphasized mystery over murder. Their quirks and flaws - the former's extremely grumpy nature, and the latter's incredible vanity - remained unchanged from the first to last episodes. And there was something wonderfully reassuring in that constancy just as there is with Brenda Johnson and her food issues, adolescent relationship with her parents and inability to commit in a relationship with a man who is now her fiance.

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles last week in which the 42-year-old actress looked ahead to Season 4, which starts tonight on TNT, Sedgwick said it was a "very conscious decision" on her part to play Johnson, the respected chief of an elite crime unit in the LAPD, without introspection and self-awareness. And while she understood that she was going against the grain of postmodern, prime-time, crime drama in doing so, she says she thought the gamble was worth it: "That's what makes her so much fun to play - there's a real pleasure in her being so different."

Obviously, viewers are taking pleasure in her creation as well. Brenda Johnson is the most popular character on cable TV with a record audience of 10 million viewers tuning in for last season's finale of The Closer. The crime series is the highest-rated drama on cable TV - premium or basic.

Many thorny issues

Nor is it all the result of an easygoing familiarity with the predictability of the lead character leading to a comfortable sense of escapism; far from it. Last season, The Closer consistently and intelligently dealt with such issues as racism, immigration, sexism, affirmative action, urban gangs, ageism and workplace downsizing while Brenda was sifting through clues and extracting confessions from some very nasty characters.

The pattern continues with tonight's season opener as Brenda investigates charred remains found in a wildfire in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. With a suggestion of sexual sadism, the deaths are gruesome enough. But the episode takes an even darker turn psychologically when a pyromaniac who appeared in Season 1 returns. He stalks and taunts Brenda - and frighteningly gets inside her head as she tries to solve the case.

"There are a lot of issues with control and power in this episode and throughout the coming season," Sedgwick says. "But you have to kind of look at it metaphorically. We don't slam you in the face with it. It's just an underlying theme, like all of our themes. But it's definitely there this year."

It's there in the opening sequence that Brenda appears uncharacteristically confused at a crime scene as wildfires rage nearby.

"I think the fire is a metaphor for her being totally out of control. She doesn't know how to deal with fire. She doesn't know from fire. She's from Atlanta, you know," the Golden Globe-winning actress says.

It's also there in the new rental house that she and fiance Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) now share with her cat and dozens of unopened boxes. (The landlord does not allow cats, a fact that Brenda has chosen not to acknowledge as the episode opens.)

"I think there's an issue of feeling out of control in connection with all of the unopened boxes in her house," Sedgwick says. "The idea is that if she keeps everything contained in the boxes, then she'll have more power and control."

And the same issues are further explored in a subplot involving a reporter for the Los Angeles Times being allowed by Brenda's supervisors to shadow her as she goes about her investigation. The reporter is constantly pushing the limits of her patience.

"The press has tremendous power, and she has to deal with that. Evidence is being leaked, and the reporter is talking to suspects as she's trying to find a killer," she says. "She's trying to control the investigation, and the reporter is undermining it. And it's a cycle: The more you feel powerless, the more you try to control things."

That cycle will continue with the Times reporter returning later in the season.

Sedgwick, an acclaimed actress and producer of such independent films as Cavedweller and Loverboy, has generally received favorable press coverage. But as someone married to another movie star, Kevin Bacon, she is half of the kind of celebrity couple that the bottom feeders in the celebrity press corps would love to get some dirt on. Not surprisingly, she says she has mixed feelings about the press in her own life.

"Like all people or institutions with power, sometimes the press just does not get it right, and that's a problem," Sedgwick says.

"I mean, if you want to talk about the power of the press, there's the whole issue with the Bush administration, and the way they were able to manipulate the press [in the run-up to the war in Iraq] is terrifying to me. So, you know, I think the press is necessary and important and can be a wonderful part of what makes America great. But it can also be manipulated and get things wrong - and so, you have to really watch it."

A bi-coastal life

Not that Sedgwick is complaining too loudly about the press or anything else these days. Life is complicated, she allows, living in New York while filming a series in Los Angeles. And it's a series that features her in virtually every frame - which leads to issues of sheer stamina that she doesn't "want to even think about."

But to have a series so successful that it looks as if it could run on TNT as long as she wants to continue to be in it is a "big surprise in a really great way."

"I wasn't looking for a long-running series when I started with The Closer - no, no, no, definitely not," she says forcefully.

"I wasn't looking to do a TV show, and not one in L.A., that's for sure. But this has been a gift for me in terms of having consistent work and being creatively fulfilled. As an actor, it's definitely put me out there more than anything I've done. I'm recognized more than I used to be, but that's certainly something that comes with the territory and actually is kind of lovely, because it means people like the show - and they like Brenda, quirks and all, I guess."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

On TV

The Closer returns for its fourth season at 9 tonight on TNT.

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