Though The Closer has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best police procedurals on TV–and one of the rare modern examples of the genre that's as character-driven as mystery-driven–it's also snuck in a few subtle themes over the course of its first three seasons. Creator James Duff likes to use words like "partnerships," "family" and "power" to describe what The Closer is about, and to that I'd like to add "observation." Throughout Season 3, several episodes opened with Brenda and the Priority Homicide team looking into the video camera that's documenting their crime scene, and throughout the whole series, Priority Homicide has been tailed by reporters and even by the crooks they've been chasing. In modern policing, everyone's being watched. And yet somehow, people still find private places to commit murder.
The Closer's fourth season opens with Brenda investigating a homicide that's been covered up by arson, all while being shadowed by an LA Times photojournalist. Throughout, the reporter asks questions: Why don't they release a picture of their prime suspect? Why don't they bring him in? In the course of his own investigation, the reporter uses some of the information he gets from the LAPD, and though Brenda's certain he's screwed everything up for her, in fact the reporter's nosiness helps her close the case.
Meanwhile, Brenda and her FBI agent boyfriend Fritz find themselves between homes, and living in a rental that won't allow pets, so Brenda has to tell the reporter, "Yes, I have a cat. That is 100% off the record." (Once again trying to control the flow of information.) As so often happens on this show, Fritz's reaction to Brenda's cat-hiding mania leads him to say something which reminds her of something else, and bingo-bango, she discovers the key clue she needs to put the mystery to bed. For those keeping score at home, the fire was started by a fireman, trying to cover the accidental murder of his mistress. He almost gets away with it, just by leading the trusting Priority Homicide Squad away from the scene of the crime–proving that just because someone is wearing the right outfit, that doesn't necessarily make them reliable–but they're led back on the right track by a person they initially thought was guilty as sin.
Generally speaking, when I watch The Closer I only loosely follow the crime and punishment part. I pay more attention to the character interactions and the ongoing soap opera of Brenda's strained workplace relationships and complicated love life. This week though, the most interesting character interactions were related directly to the case. Brenda's old nemesis Bill Croelick–a serial killer known to douse women with alcohol and then torch them–walks Brenda through the actual crime scene, something he could only do if he either committed the crime himself, or just knows how to think like the real criminal. Turns out it's the latter, though the creepy Croelick does pop up at Brenda's house after the case is closed, bearing gifts: candlesticks, and a lighter. He beats a quick retreat, but only after he lets Brenda know that, yep, she's being watched.
Aside from some shudder-inducing bit of forensic business that has Brenda slipping on the charred skin of the murder victim like gloves (so the ME can lift a clean print from the corpse), The Closer's fourth season opener reasserts that the show will remain brisk, only lightly complicated cops-and-robbers fare. As for The Closer's TNT Monday partner Saving Grace, tonight it opened with a scene of a dog leaping after a fugitive and landing in a bloody heap on an underpass embankment, and later featured a scene in which the series' heroine Grace Hanadarko does an underwear-flashing hoochie-coochie dance in front of the handcuffed priest who raped her when she was 11.
In its first season, Saving Grace had trouble settling on a consistent tone and point-of-view: Is it the story of a fun-loving Oklahoma City cop who solves crimes through sheer drive (even when working through an alcoholic haze)? Or is it the story of a tortured soul trying to get shut of her demons through the tutelage of her guardian angel, a tobacco-chewing redneck named Earl? Is it a police drama with a colorful lead, like The Closer, or is it something darker and weirder?
We don't know yet how Season Two will go, but its premiere certainly embraced the darkness with little hesitation. Last season ended with Grace pointing a gun at her childhood priest, and this season initially opens with her back on the job, with no hints as to what happened with the cliffhanger. (Given how the series occasionally toys with Grace's perceptions, there was always a chance that she didn't actually meet her rapist at all, except in her mind.) Soon we learn that she kidnapped him, and is keeping him hostage back at her house so that she can unwind at the end of a hard day with a little light torture. Eventually she turns him in, and after he's streeted, the priest is killed by another of his former victims: a cop whom we later learn has been molesting his fiancée's preteen daughter.
Frankly, Saving Grace is too grim and hard-boiled for me, though I admire it for Holly Hunter's bravura performance as Grace–all wiry and manic and sweet and scared–and for serving week after week as a reminder of how complex heroism can be. I'm still thrown by the "talking to angels" bit, and I think the level of pain in Grace's life rises to the level of overkill at times, but the show is unlike anything else on TV, and the way tonight's episode presents all of Grace's successes as lucky accidents with sometimes awful side effects is about as bleak a portrait of police work as I can ever remember seeing on TV. (And I was a fan of Homicide.)
In a way, Grace is Brenda without the education and the pretension of gentility, and Saving Grace is The Closer without the moral order. If Saving Grace had more compelling cases or a more consistent tone, I'd think it was the superior show. But all things being equal, I prefer the old-fashioned red herrings and comic relief of The Closer. It's less likely to have me tossing and turning on a hot night in July.
-I conducted a Random Roles last week with The Closer's G.W. Bailey which was just a delight from start to finish. Look for it very soon.
-A chilling line from Grace's mom when she hears that their old priest is an accused child molester: "But he was always so good with you kids."
-Both The Closer and Saving Grace featured scenes tonight with their leads in only their underwear. But the context was very different.