Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Closer

The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, is one of my favorite shows. I used to call Brenda one of my two favorite blonde tv detectives until Veronica Mars started sucking. So now Brenda is it. In fact, I often refer to the show as "Brenda," as in "I have a new Brenda to watch tonight!"

Brenda is in some ways a typical Ally McBeal type of character. In a New York Times piece (not available online, though it was in one of our composition textbooks), Karen Durbin argues that Ally McBeal is endearing to many modern women because she is good at her career but somehow clueless in her romantic and interpersonal relationships. Brenda is similar, except that she does have a working, long-term romantic relationship. She did have a romantic past with her boss, but she gave it up, along with the junk food. In fact, I'm trying to remember if I've seen a junk food scene in Season 3. I think not. At the end of Season 2, she ended up choosing not to re-entangle herself with Pope, her boss, and her rejection of him was telegraphed by the way she scooped up all the junk food she'd hidden in her office and threw it all away.

In some ways, the recurring theme of Brenda's love for junk food was irritating; portraying a woman as addicted to junk food? Wow, original. But the way it was portrayed was so wonderful. Each scene where she contemplated eating a Ring-Ding was like watching foreplay. I sometimes found myself almost as interested in whether or when she'd eat the Ring-Ding as in how she solved the case. In Season 2, the squad themselves became involved in her games with the junk food, hiding it or providing it as necessary, offering up some clever nonverbal background action alongside the primary dialogue in the scene.

But that's over now. Meanwhile, Brenda is a working woman who isn't sacrificing love (so much) for her work. Yes, work causes conflict in her relationship with Fritzie. (OK, his name is Fritz, but like Brenda, I call him Fritzie.) Yes, her high status (Deputy Chief of Priority Homicide, a high-profile job) is in some ways more demanding than Fritzie's job in the FBI, and his co-workers hassle him about it, calling him "Mr. Johnson." But Brenda and Fritz are making it work. Yes, they have fights. Mainly over her work, sometimes over her family. I guess I'd like to see more conflict over his work or family, but hey, that's what we have Season 4 for, no? Gotta leave some drama out there to mine.

In many of the fandoms I've been involved in, "shipping," i.e., the viewing strategy involving rooting for a couple to form a romantic/sexual relationship, has created divisiveness. As I tend to like shows featuring lead female characters and I tend to like shipping, I've often been put on the defensive for wanting to see a lead female character involved with a man, accused of being somehow anti-feminist for not appreciating that a strong female character does not need a man to be complete.

And yet, most women today, strong and otherwise, do have partners, and about 90% of those who do have male partners. I am interested in seeing how a strong female character works through a relationship. Why? Because I'm a strong female, and a bit of a character, some say. ;) And I have a relationship (15 years of marriage), and I like to see these relationships onscreen in ways that don't offend me.

Brenda and Fritzie never offend me, except when Brenda is a bit too concerned about her father's view of her. But when they fight because she works too much? How many times has my husband complained that I am answering e-mail from my students that I could just as well leave to tomorrow? Using work as an excuse to avoid doing something she doesn't want to do? I've done it, too.

I'm also interested in the gendered implications of Brenda as leader of her squad. Sometimes she seems like a mom, especially when she has to chew out Flynn and Provenza, which is humorously often. In one of my favorite episodes, she shuts out Gabriel again and again, to his consternation, but we know and he later finds out that Brenda was trying to protect him because she was doing something ethically questionable, and she wanted him to be out of the loop. There was some pragmatism there as well; she knew that if her attempts to deal with the situation failed, she would need Gabriel there to pick up the pieces, and she trusted him to do so.

That makes this past week's episode all the more interesting. Brenda has saved Provenza's skin more than once when he's made mistakes. But this past week, Gabriel beat an admission (not a confession) out of a suspect, and after Brenda fixed the situation so that she could close the case, she promptly suspended Gabriel without pay for use of excessive force. Garance Franke-Ruta notes this development as well, with praise, and I agree. This was one of the hardest things Brenda has had to do on this show, and you could see it. But she would not sacrifice her principles for her favorite. Not only that, by doing so, she was in many ways saving him and saving his career. She's making sure that he will turn into the ethical and superb law enforcement professional she knows he can be. And you don't do that by covering up their wrongdoings.

Gabriel has two mentors: Brenda and Taylor. Both care about Gabriel and his career. But Taylor will use questionable policing methods (such as putting a child murderer suspect into general detention to let him be beaten up) again and again without a lick of conscience. Brenda knows she is there in that department to bring honor and integrity as well as skill to the office. She knows Taylor has his strengths, but he also has flaws. She can't let Gabriel turn into Taylor when she knows he can be so much better.

We know Brenda has feelings, and we know they inform her work. But she balances those feelings with integrity. We have so often been trained to see the expression of feeling by a woman leader as an example of her weakness. In last week's episode of The Closer, it was an example of her strength.

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