Brenda Leigh Johnson

Brenda Leigh Johnson, Feminist Icon

Brenda Leigh Johnson

Photo Credit: TNT

In 2005, TNT launched a new police procedural, their first major effort to create original programming on the network. That procedural was The Closer, starring film actress Kyra Sedgwick as tough-as-nails Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, a transfer into the LAPD’s Priority Murder Squad (or Priority Homicide Division, as it was quickly changed to be called when Brenda wasn’t pleased with the ‘PMS’ stationery).

From the pilot onwards, it was evident that this wasn’t your typical procedural. Sure, there was an investigation every episode of a new case, a cast of diverse cops, dramatic confessions, etc. But Brenda was a character in every sense of the word. Her background was explored and she was given a colorful identity, something that can’t be said for the leads on most cop shows. We got to see Brenda at her weakest (eating chocolate) and her strongest (interviewing suspects) equally, and we got to see her fall in love with and eventually marry Special Agent Fritz Howard of the FBI (Jon Tenney) while fighting old feelings for Assistant Chief Will Pope (J.K. Simmons). All of this wouldn’t have worked, of course, if Sedgwick hadn’t brought such life and wonder to the role.

Not only was Brenda wonderful, but her supporting cast became more and more fleshed out with each episode as well. Starting in season two, light-hearted episodes showcasing the antics of Lieutenants Andy Flynn (Tony Denison) and Louie Provenza (G.W. Bailey) became a seasonal treat, and later season plots about Detective Julio Sanchez (Raymond Cruz) watching his brother die and Sergeant David Gabriel (Corey Reynolds) physically attacking a child molester added dramatic gravitas.

The Closer wasn’t always a great show — it especially started to sag in season four, when the premise became tired and Brenda’s relationship with Fritz became more about bickering and less about loving moments. The show revitalized itself in season five, however, when it introduced Captain Sharon Raydor of the Force Investigation Division (Mary McDonnell), a worthy adversary for Brenda. What was originally supposed to be a three-episode gig became a regular role by the show’s final season for McDonnell as fans relished in the two women’s stubborn rivalry.

Last night, The Closer signed off and Major Crimes signed in with mixed results. While The Closer‘s finale was certainly emotional with Brenda and Sedgwick departing for good, it was anticlimactic, as Major Crimes involves almost the exact same team, simply with Raydor at the helm. While she makes a brilliant antihero, Raydor is hardly a sympathetic protagonist, and the chemistry of the show is a little off. Time will tell if it can recalibrate itself and become popular, but Major Crimes feels like nothing but an attempt to extend the brand without Sedgwick.

The problem is that the brand is Sedgwick. Without her, The Closer would have ended early on as a forgettable TNT procedural. Instead, it thrived, and inspired scores more female protagonists who weren’t syrupy sweet and weak all the time. Glenn Close on Damages. Julianna Marguiles on The Good Wife. Holly Hunter on Saving Grace. Claire Danes on Homeland. None of these portrayals would have been fathomable in a world where The Closer and Sedgwick didn’t break the glass ceiling first. For that, television and women across the country owe much to the Southern drawl and steely tenacity of Brenda Leigh Johnson.

Perhaps Brenda and Sedgwick will show up on an episode of Major Crimes at some point – and what a thrill that would be to hear that Southern-sweet “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” again – but frankly, I’m happy with where we’ve left Brenda. She left the department to focus on her family after capturing her toughest suspect ever. She was fulfilled. And thanks to her, so are millions of women who enjoy quality female protagonists every week.

I salute you, Brenda Leigh Johnson. As you would exclaim every episode, “Thank you so much!”


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