Refined Sugar


Don’t underestimate the significance of the junk food. I’m talking about the junk food that’s a recurrent motif in TNT’s hit drama The Closer-a fast-paced, woman-centered police procedural that may mollify Prime Suspect addicts while they’re waiting for Helen Mirren to fall back into line.

The brusque badge-toting heroine of The Closer, which has just kicked off its second season, has a failing many of us can identify with: she craves unhealthy edibles. A drop-dead gorgeous blonde like Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) may not be the kind of person you’d pigeonhole as a sugar-and-trans-fat addict, but she has been known to keep a desk drawer full of prepackaged yummies, and even to chomp on candy discovered at a crime scene. Admittedly, at the start of season 2 (which began airing in June) she has ostensibly kicked the habit, and is noshing on oranges, but don’t expect that resolution to last too long.

At first glance, Brenda’s gastronomic foible may seem just another one of the show’s formulaic elements. The Closer can be fun to watch-the chemistry between its actors often positively crackles-but it does trot out a slate of detective-story clichés. To begin with, there’s the fish-out-of-water premise: like Lord Peter Wimsey slumming with commoners in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novels, or Jackie Chan’s Detective Inspector Lee in the movie Rush Hour, the abrasive, Southern-born Brenda is at odds with her environment. When last year’s storyline began, she had just relocated from Atlanta to Los Angeles, where she inspired resentment and rebellion from her subordinates at the Priority Homicide Division. Her colleagues eventually mellowed somewhat, but as season 2 begins, Brenda’s Dixieland drawl and indifference to show-biz glamour still make her as conspicuous as Scarlett O’Hara on a Malibu beach.

There’s the ethically fraught love-interest angle. Like the flirtation between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s characters in The Big Sleep, there’s a percolating tension between Brenda and her boss, Assistant Police Chief Will Pope (J. K. Simmons), with whom she once had an affair. And her bemusedly tolerant boyfriend Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) is an FBI agent who occasionally helps her out on an investigation-an arrangement that must surely conflict with departmental guidelines.

There’s the sleuth-with-a-startling-quirk angle. P. D. James’s hero Adam Dalgleish writes poetry. Adrian Monk, protagonist of the eponymous TV series, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Brenda surreptitiously eats junk food. It’s a failing that humanizes her, compensating for the intimidating level of talent she displays in another area: extracting the truth from suspects in the interrogation room. She herself is the “closer” referred to in the show’s title: she excels at bringing cases to a successful close.

This being a series about a strong female character, the specter of patriarchal prejudice hovers constantly in the background. It certainly doesn’t help that Brenda tends to dress like an Ann Taylor model-sweater sets, trim jackets and skirts, short flowery dresses, etc. (Frankly, if I’d realized years ago that such attire was kosher for a deputy police chief, I might have gone into law enforcement myself.) It’s hard to believe that a squad of full-blooded American males would object to working closely with a gal who dresses so adorably, but that, The Closer implies, is the case: Brenda’s coworkers chafe at her directives at least partly because she’s a woman. So her victories in the interrogation room are a triumphant assertion of female power.

They’re also a testament to the character’s acting skills. To keep suspects off their guard, Brenda often pretends to be kinder, or stupider, or more maternal than she really is. The questioning session becomes a little performance, uniting our policewoman with the show-biz community that is L.A.’s claim to fame.

But the nagging junk-food addiction reminds us that Brenda fundamentally stands apart from the Tinseltown ethos. Think of television- or movie-star cuisine, and you think of wheat grass juice and macrobiotic vegetable platters. By contrast, Hostess snack cakes and Krispy Kreme donuts are more in Brenda’s line.

And that’s just as well, because the Hollywood of The Closer is elite, pampered, and superficial. “Will it affect property values?” a man asks the police after his neighbor, a film producer, was murdered in a Jacuzzi at one point last season. In another episode, Brenda leafs through the desk calendar of a murdered model, reading the appointments out loud. “Botox. Collagen. Dermabrasian. Haircut. New dress. A complete makeover.” Later in the program, when the deputy police chief experiments with a more sophisticated coiffure and make-up, Brenda ends up tearing her curling iron out of the socket in frustration.

In other words, though actress Sedgwick may be stunning, the character she plays stands in opposition to the superficiality and phoniness of movie glamour. Her gustatory proclivities play no small part in this symbolism. As America rallies its forces to fight the obesity epidemic-as schools evict soda machines, and Wendy’s restaurants eschew trans fats-let’s hope that Brenda continues to indulge her sugar cravings.

The Closer is not quite as satisfying as the return of PBS’s Prime Suspect, but at least it’s something. Think of it as meaningful junk food.

Published in the 2006-07-14 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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