Figure It Out

Throwback Thursday: Summer, Slime and Lori Beth

Figure It Out

Photo Credit: Nickelodeon

In the late ’90s, Nickelodeon hatched what is one of the most brilliant cross-promotional schemes in modern history: Figure It Out. The game show starred panelists guessing the special talent of one particular kid, but in a twist, all the panelists were Nickelodeon personalities. The whole thing was entertaining on its own, but was also a half-hour advertisement for all the network’s other properties. In many ways, it was one of the first innovators of product placement.

Less cynically and post-childhood, I’d have said that Figure It Out was awesome. Hosted by former sports commentator and Olympic gold medalist (?!) Summer Sanders, the premise was simple and fun. There were lots of opportunities for slime, and almost every episode featured either future DUI magnet Amanda Bynes or the absolutely brilliant Lori Beth Denberg on the panel.

Denberg, if you recall, was the face of the “Vital Information” sketch on All That, and in that role, she defined much of my early childhood. The deadpan delivery, quick one-liners, absurdist premise: all of it was hilarious to me. I was the kind of kid that didn’t laugh too much at gross-out humor (I was a bit of a priss back then), but that was the exact kind of comic style I could appreciate.

On Figure It Out, Denberg was no less hilarious, and she was always a highlight, even when her panel was weighed down by losers like Danny Tamberelli. (Tamberelli was also Denberg’s absolutely miscast replacement on “Vital Information” – whoever thought that was a masterstroke of genius deserves the firing they inevitably received.) She had repartee with the other panelists and with Sanders, and she managed to make every joke land.

The Figure It Out era marked the end of Nick’s ability to really innovate with its programming. Nowadays, everything’s simply a spinoff of everything else, mirroring the Disney Channel formula. However, they’ve brought Figure It Out back, and while it’s not as amusing without the old panelists, the format is exactly the same, right down to the noise they play when someone gets an answer right. In this age of ’90s nostalgia and remakes that’s still winding down, it’s nice to see a rehash that really pays tribute to the original series.

Now, if only we could get Denberg and Sanders back on there. Below, check out one of the best Lori Beth Denberg episodes of Figure It Out.

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!”