How ‘The Closer’ Redefined Female Roles in Primetime Police Dramas

For seven seasons, this refrain of Kyra Sedgwick‘s Brenda Leigh Johnson would speak volumes on TNT’s The Closer. For the unassuming and underestimating, it was a straightforward thanks; to those frustrated at Brenda, it was cool condescension; and for anyone who grew up in the South—well, they knew exactly what it meant. Through it all, Brenda stayed as genuine as the day she was introduced, the fish-out-of-water Georgia native who’d navigated the halls of justice in the federal government now working her way through the live-wire environment and bureaucratic nightmare of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Add to it a squad of officers who gradually learned to respect her, a boss that was just as much a roadblock as an ally (J.K. Simmons, pre-Oscar) and one of television’s most underrated and smoldering love affairs (Jon Tenney as the ever-patient FBI agent Fritz Howard), and you’ve got the makings of a success. Key to this winning formula was a simple yet fundamental principle: Brenda was allowed to maintain her femininity, and use it as a strength. In the process, The Closer helped redefine what was possible for woman in primetime police drama and opened the door for a slew of strong-willed, independent female characters played by top-tier actresses and forever shifting the landscape of television.


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Before Sedgwick strode to glory, female officers on screen largely got the short end of the stick. Television’s first female police officer debuted all the way back in 1957 in the syndicated series Decoy. Beverly Garland played Patricia “Casey” Jones, a New York detective whose undercover work led her to play any number of roles from nurses to singers to hookers. While only lasting 39 episodes, the show was a hit and featured soon-to-be famous actors such as Larry Hagman, Diane Ladd, and Suzanne Pleshette in early appearances. Most of the show’s episodes are in the public domain and easy to find on YouTube, but entertaining as it is, we learn very little about Jones herself; here, it’s the work that’s the thing.

It wouldn’t be until 1974 that another woman would get the chance to carry a police drama by herself (no disrespect to Peggy Lipton in The Mod Squad)—Police Woman, starring Angie Dickinson as Sergeant “Pepper” Anderson. While the show lasted for four seasons and earned its star a trio of Emmy nominations, Dickinson herself became frustrated with the tendency to over-sexualize her character as a substitute for deeper exploration, stating in a People interview, “I’m tired of appearing in scenes where the phone rings while I’m taking a bath,” and later sharing that she regretted doing the show at all.

With 1981’s Cagney & Lacey, women in police drama finally began to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts when it came to full-on character exploration and life outside the uniform. However, it almost wasn’t meant to be. The show cast the role of Christine Cagney three times (first with Loretta Swit, then Meg Foster, then eventual series co-star Sharon Gless) and was canceled twice by CBS, saved only by an intense letter-writing campaign from fans and a change in time slot. Gless and original star Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey proved a hit with critics and fans alike. Here were two women at the top of their game, succeeding in spite of the man’s world they were forced to operate within. But far from being defined only by the criminals they captured or valued only for their sex appeal, Cagney and Lacey had real lives with real problems. Mary Beth constantly juggled her work and home life, wanting to be an excellent cop and just as excellent a wife and mother. Christine was stuck between the hard-scrabble life of policing and the world of privilege she’d grown up in, eventually succumbing to alcoholism in perhaps the show’s most powerful storyline. The series ran for seven years, and from 1983-1988 Daly and Gless had a stranglehold on the Best Actress in a Drama Emmy Award, with Daly winning four times and Gless two.

1991 saw the debut of Prime Suspect on the BBC—The Closer‘s most direct ancestor. Helen Mirren starred as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a woman determined to succeed in a world full of sexist creeps who consistently threw up barriers and wanted to see her fail. Across seven series, Tennison grapples with cases involving institutionalized racism, child abuse, and prostitution. It also becomes exceedingly difficult for her to maintain relationships; at the end of series three she terminates a pregnancy, and regularly turns to alcohol to cope with the demands of her personal and professional lives until beginning to attend AA meetings in the final series. This template—successful film star transitioning to television, accompanied by a colorful ensemble of characters—would work wonders for TNT, and in 2005 The Closer debuted to an audience of more than 7 million people.

From the start, Brenda Leigh Johnson wasn’t your typical female cop. For starters, she was an Atlanta girl in a world full of cutthroat L.A. officers, all of whom believed one way or another that she wasn’t worthy of being a Deputy Chief. But instead of ridding herself of any semblance of individuality, she thumbed her nose at the entire system. In the pilot episode, before going to extract the key confession, she’s seen trying on a variety of outfits before settling on a skirt and blazer combo. For Brenda (and Sedgwick), feminine sensibilities and appeal weren’t a detriment, they were an asset, deployed skillfully and with thought behind them. It soon became the norm that when Brenda showed up at crime scenes, her bubblegum pink trench coat accompanied her. Small flourishes such as these—a flower applique on a shoe, the fit of a wrap dress—made it possible for Brenda to maintain her eccentricities and unique style among a sea of suits and ties. Because of this, the surrounding men often underestimated her—a mistake she’d make them regret again and again.

Furthermore, Brenda is allowed to be more viscerally emotional than any female officer before her. Whether letting loose frustration at perennial busybodies Lieutenants Andrew Flynn and Louis Provenza (Tony Denison and G.W. Bailey, respectively), going toe-to-toe with antagonistic subordinates like Commander Russell Taylor (Robert Gossett), or showering her beloved Fritz with affection, it’s Brenda wearing her heart on her sleeve (sometimes to her own chagrin) that endears her to the audience. Take Season 5’s “Walking Back the Cat;” ostensibly, Brenda is helping the FBI find a missing person. But in reality, she’s being repeatedly confronted with the death of her beloved pet, Kitty—she literally carries the ashes around in her purse for the length of the case. Throughout, Brenda is stubborn, angry, saddened, resentful, and ultimately accepting; she’s allowed to do more in one episode than Angie Dickinson was throughout an entire series.

Most importantly, in the ecosystem of Hollywood, it all paid off in the end. The Closer is one of the most successful shows ever on ad-supported cable, and broke several ratings records for TNT. Sedgwick was celebrated by her peers and the television community alike; she would win both a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy for her work, and the show would receive multiple Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for both Sedgwick and the ensemble as a whole. It even inspired a spinoff, Major Crimes, focused on Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell), a colleague of Brenda’s who takes over the department after she resigns in the series finale.

Since Brenda hung up her badge we’ve seen a major tone shift in the way women in police drama are portrayed, and megawatt stars are flocking to television screens to play them. Jennifer Lopez came to NBC for Shades of Blue, focused on an NYPD officer forced to serve as an informant on her corrupt boss while simultaneously trying to raise a child as a single mother. Kate Winslet earned multiple plaudits for her stint in the limited series Mare of Easttown, investigating the murder of a teenage mother while trying to hold her own dysfunctional life together. Even on long-running behemoths like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, we’ve seen more of an effort over the past 10 years to get Mariska Hargitay‘s Olivia Benson out from behind the desk and dive into more of her own complicated personal life. The Brits have kept at it too—actresses including Gillian Anderson in The Fall, Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, and Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley have each taken the oath to serve and protect in their projects.

While reflecting on The Closer‘s success, Sedgwick was asked what she’s most proud of. In no uncertain terms, she replied, “Whether we started this or not I don’t know, but after the success, a lot of women in their 40s got great, great roles on television. And that’s the best.”

Thank you. Thank you so much.


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