'The Closer': A Risky Final Season For A Historic Cable Series

TNT's signature crime drama "The Closer," arguably the most successful scripted series in the history of advertiser-supported basic cable, is about to try something that few shows on broadcast or cable are sturdy enough to pull off. A game-changing, certain-to-be-controversial storyline that will run throughout the upcoming seventh season of the show (scheduled to begin on July 11) will lead to the departure of its hugely popular lead character and set the stage for a new series titled "Major Crimes," which is not so much a spin-off as a reworking of "The Closer" with many members of its current cast. (Series star Kyra Sedgwick will leave "The Closer" at the end of this extended season, which will play out over ten episodes this summer, several more during the winter and a few next year, leading to the launch of the new show.)

The changes coming to "The Closer" are organic to its characters, respectful of their histories and right in line with its storylines to date, and they should not be confused with the kind of reckless narrative stunts that have killed so many once-vital shows late in their runs. But I'm worried that they might backfire, alienating fans and bringing the historic run of "The Closer" to a less-than-satisfying end, in that I don't think the show's millions of passionate, long-term viewers are going to like them. They won't turn away, because the upcoming storyline isn't a shark jump, and the escalating tension during the season to come is likely to not only hold the current audience but perhaps draw lapsed viewers back to the show. But it is never a good idea to subject loyal viewers of a series to something they don't want to see. The damage can be wide-ranging, even if the show in question is coming to an end, in that it can stop them from investing time in new shows, and nobody in the television or advertising businesses wants that.



As has already been reported, the changes coming to "The Closer" involve Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Police Chief Brenda Lee Johnson and her team coming under fire for the violent aftermath of a case they closed in a particularly harrowing episode last season. The beauty of Brenda Lee is that throughout the show's previous six seasons she has proven herself a master at getting iron-clad confessions from murderers. Her methods may be unorthodox and misleading, but they are never outside the rules of the law. (Those confessions "always hold up in court," as one character asserts in the Season 7 premiere.)

This is precisely what viewers love about her: At a time when people feel so helpless against the systems that govern their lives, especially a legal system that often seems to protect criminals at the expense of their victims (and the victims' families), Brenda Lee has emerged as a character who knows how to cut through crap and get things done, saving lives and protecting the innocent in the process. She may maneuver around the law, but she isn't lawless. She doesn't make things look easy, but she does make them seem possible.

In a potentially risky turn for the show, Brenda Lee's methods are going to come under increasing scrutiny this season because of the way she processed a homicidal gang member in that memorable episode last year. In short, she coaxed a confession from him in the murder of an elderly convenience store owner and his eight-year-old grandson only after securing immunity for him (because he had knowledge of another matter), knowing full well that once he returned home other members of his gang would likely kill him. But the murderer didn't know that himself, and when he demanded that the police return him to his home as a free man, Brenda Lee and her men simply left him there to meet the fate he had sealed for himself. As the seventh season begins, the dead murderer's mother has filed a potentially disastrous lawsuit against the LAPD and everyone she blames for the brutal murder of her murderous son.

It's going to be a particularly tough season, not only for Brenda Lee and her team, but for viewers who expect them to come out on top at the end. Indeed, they are apt to cheer during the season premiere when the iron-willed and somewhat indignant Brenda Lee declares, "I did nothing wrong!" She even threatens to resign over the matter, only to learn that she'll be in even deeper trouble if she does. This storyline should make for great drama, but it won't serve anyone's interest if it doesn't end on a positive note for Brenda Lee and the team viewers have embraced for so long.

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