The Closer Pt. 1 (Seasons 1-4)
May I have your attention. Before you go another minute further in this lesson, which I think of as Brenda Leigh Johnson, Evolution of a Leader, PLEASE NOTE this episode will contain spoilers. The evolution of a character, particularly a leader character and LEAD role is just that – the change in demeanor, style and approach that comes through experience.
So, if you aren’t freaked out by spoilers, or are already familiar with the first four seasons of this excellent series, please listen. Critically acclaimed and VERY well written, acted and produced, The Closer is TOTALLY worth viewing.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory focuses on The Closer’s first four of its seven seasons of production.
Brenda Leigh Johnson is a rare female character in that the series BEGINS with her assuming a leadership role – that of deputy chief within a division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Throughout TV Herstory, women police personnel – which is to say government employees in a male-dominated field – rarely lead.
We’ll take a look at just what TV glass ceilings The Closer broke and how Kyra Sedgwick’s character is as accomplished a role model as TV has ever seen.
Before we can understand Brenda Leigh Johnson’s leadership traits, we need to know a bit about her background. Interesting circumstances and a unique resume bring her to the LAPD. We learn in the first season how her foibles play into her leadership growth. Some seem a little inconsistent and some reveal just a hint of real life, but they all serve as mechanisms to add color to the main plots, which are focused on high-profile crimes.
With that background, we’ll put Deputy Chief Johnson’s record of leading the Priority Homicide Division up to a leadership test, using the standards set forth in The Leadership Challenge. The Leadership Challenge is a popular leadership curriculum developed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner more than 20 years ago, and focuses on five timeless leadership principles. I’ll explain them as we go.
So first, a bit about the show - From 2005 to 2012 cable network TNT aired an original drama entitled The Closer which was a reference to the abilities of the main character, Brenda Leigh Johnson – to close a case through interrogation and confession. It aired in 2005, so it’s interesting to note American TV’s fascination with interrogation and suspect handling. We were fresh off 2003’s international Abu Ghraib, in which American Army torture and abuses were revealed. We were beginning to realize the vast skills developed during this long period of international conflict, were now being used by American law enforcement.
The show was standard cable’s highest rated drama. It garnered 66 nominations for recognition of actors, the show itself and production categories. Sedgwick was nominated more than 40 times by major award groups like the Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes and the Emmys. She won:
- the 2006 Gracie Award for Outstanding Lead in a Drama Series;
- a 2007 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV Series Drama;
- 2009’s People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV Drama Diva;
- an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2010.
The Closer was written mostly by men and occasionally directed by women. Lead star Sedgwick was also an executive producer of 81 of the total 109 episodes across the seven seasons.
Brenda Leigh Johnson is smart, tough, irascible – and in her 40s. She doesn’t suffer fools lightly. For women across the country who begin feeling invisible at this stage of life, regardless of their qualifications... Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson carries their torch.
Brenda’s flame may have inadvertently lit a fire clear over at a competing show on one of the major broadcast networks. Here’s an interesting timeline:
As The Closer premiered in 2005, Law & Order SVU was entering its 6th Season on NBC. At that time, SVU’s primary character Detective Olivia Benson, played by the phenomenal Mariska Hargitay was still processing cases with her partner and team. Little mention was ever made of her interest in promotion.
By the FINAL episode of The Closer in 2013, SVU’s Detective Benson was still a detective – a highly decorated, occasionally admonished risk-taker. It wasn’t until the middle of the 2013-14 season that her own boss, Captain Cragun, played by Dann Florek, announced his retirement, creating the vacancy which ultimately resulted in Benson’s promotion.
Some say that women have a hard time aspiring to and actively pursuing promotion. In her book Lean In (page 63), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes, “Women are more reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing that good job performance will naturally lead to jobs.” She goes on to write that experts in the field call this a ‘Tiara Syndrome’ – where women “’expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.’”
Did Detective Benson suffer from Tiara Syndrome? Did The Closer’s success pressure writers of Law & Order SVU to finally place the highly qualified, hardworking Benson in a leadership role?
If there is ANY connection, then the impact of The Closer really DOES cross over from the progressive shows that we’ve come to expect from cable network productions – to male-dominated broadcast networks which in recent years, have minimized the role and promotion of smart women.
Let’s explore the character of Brenda Leigh Johnson – who at the very least, IS a character. The resume she brings from Atlanta to the LAPD is that of a CIA-trained interrogator and former detective with the Atlanta Police Department. We learn early on that she’s had a prior relationship with Assistant Chief Will Pope, played by the even-keeled J.K. Simmons.
After what we understand to be a spate of failures involving the LAPD’s handling of high-profile cases (think white Ford Bronco and questions around the chain of custody of a certain former football player’s size 12 ugly ass Bruno Magli shoes) Assistant Chief Pope lobbies for the creation of the Priority Homicide Division with Johnson in mind. The series begins with Johnson walking into the predominantly male though - relatively diverse -workplace known for its internal politics.
Brenda Leigh Johnson is a focused professional. That same level of focus and discipline is used to keep the show pointed at the crime-solving plots. Plots don’t delve much into the private lives of the secondary characters. And the few bits we see of Brenda’s personal life are designed to help us understand the origins of her real and perceived shortcomings.
Like so many professional women, she has a difficult time striking a work-life balance. Early in the series when she’s living alone, she talks by phone with her parents who live in Atlanta. Brenda usually winds up rattled, saying something wrong that she later thinks has displeased them. The viewer wonders if the unfulfilled expectations of Brenda come from her parents or herself.
Over time, her wardrobe transitions from mainly sweaters and skirts to a more varied array of suits accented by brightly colored accessories. Early in the series, her shoes appear sensible. By the fourth season she’s in the field in high heels. Slingbacks even. Since the first show featuring the first woman police detective, we’ve always judged their clothing choices for practicality. In an interview, Sedgwick attributes the wardrobe to a conscious choice that Brenda Leigh present as a feminine Southern Belle, a woman from the South in a position of responsibility. Brenda Leigh gets high marks, but I’m skeptical about who made the call about the heels.
Whether as cat owner, girlfriend, fiancée, or wife, Brenda struggles …
Russ Mitchell Interview, Flaws
She’s in the prime of her career. Urgent suspect interviews, meetings with the informants, and scouring a crime scene are THE priorities of her life. Fortunately for her, the cat and her boyfriend/fiancée/husband Fritz are both very patient. And, because Fritz is an FBI agent, he not only understands her drive, but occasionally is confronted by the same questions of priorities.
Within what otherwise can be tense, gruesome episodes, light relief occasionally comes at Brenda’s expense and she takes it in stride. In Season One, she’s working hard to get information from a witness – a teen who we know to be autistic.
Custody of Keith
Each episode usually holds an ironic, sardonic or quirky bit. Season One treats the viewer to ongoing riff on how difficult it is for someone new to town to navigate in LA without a GPS. As a result, when time is a factor and she needs to be somewhere, she’s either likely to get lost, need explicit directions, or ask someone more familiar with the roadways to drive.
Brenda seems to have an odd relationship with food.
Kyra on eating
Sedgwick savors every bite with the moans of a porn star. Seriously, you can TASTE the chocolate.
One more point about gender, however – in season one she is assaulted by a murder - rape suspect. It’s a reality check in many ways. This IS serious a drama, not a light comedy about a lady with a southern accent. Sedgwick IS on the small side, very fit and yes, appears capable with a gun. But at NO point do we get the sense that she works out much, lifts weights or knows martial arts. This drama’s action is more mental than physical.
It’s refreshing that the writers embedded these quirks and nuances into the character of Brenda Leigh Johnson. They maintain the show’s pace without becoming a distraction from the real plot – much like how we get to know any of our own co-workers. These attributes also mellow her edginess while in - the mode.
As a leadership consultant and adjunct professor on the subject, I’m always on the lookout for real-life examples of people from all walks of life who lead - capably.
Check any bookstore’s business or management section and you’ll find a raft of books on leadership. The Leadership Challenge, written by Robert Kouzes and Barry Posner more than 20 years ago, goes deep into these five basic principles which leaders need to get really good at in order to bring out the best in their team.
First, they must model the way. Yes, be a role model in their personal as well as professional lives.
Second, leaders must inspire a shared vision. In other words, a leader may initiate a vision, but it’s only through the entire team having a stake in it and seeing it as their own work, that the vision becomes a unifying bond.
Third, a leader has to challenge the process – in a sense, see the status quo and opportunities for improvement that will lead the team closer to the goal.
The fourth principle is empowering others to act. Leaders don’t micro-manage, but rather have their followers’ trust, respect the work and knowledge of their followers and are certain that the plan or vision has been communicated to the team.
Finally, according to Kouzes and Posner, a leader must encourage the heart. We do our best when we feel understood, listened to and valued. It’s nice to receive credit when it’s due.
Yes, I realize that strong women characters in TV aren’t REAL-LIFE examples, but every once in a while, a TV or movie character presents a teachable moment. With a seven-year series like The Closer, we’re able to see Deputy Chief Johnson’s character and leadership tested time and again. When viewed through the lens of leadership principles, Brenda’s handling of every episode’s big challenge or situation provides us a really well-executed, teachable moment.
A leadership analysis of The Closer – specifically Brenda Leigh Johnson’s performance - shows growth in team building, assigning work, setting expectations and ultimately winning each seasoned detective over - and all the while?? Improving the division’s performance!
Or, as was said of Ginger Rogers…. She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards - and in high heels.
So, while she’s not a real-life male CEO or Wall Street pariah, Brenda Leigh Johnson of the LAPD measures up well as a leader. Remember, even in TV’s fictionland, she is one of very few women at that level of management. The proof of her success is in the stability and professional performance of her team, while adhering to a bare-bones government budget.
So about those principles of leadership, let’s look at the first, Brenda Leigh as a Role Model.
At this very busy division of the LAPD, Brenda Leigh Johnson works as hard as any of her peers or direct reports. Her team learns of her reputation and record in Atlanta through a Google search of Atlanta news sites.
Brenda was challenged early to declare her ethical run-ins a thing of the past, yet also model incredible talent. To achieve that, there are many points in her script where she asserts things must be done according to procedure, or she quotes procedure chapter and verse.
In her role as a strong-willed woman, however, she sometimes knowingly sometimes not, steps over the line of authority, sensitivity or protocol. When she seethes, cornered, accepting criticism from her boss and learning of what constitutes corrective measures, women viewers may share in her frustration, her isolation.
Viewers MUST wonder whether Assistant Chief Pope has given her nine lives in her role as deputy chief. There’s something a bit unrealistic about the lengths to which he goes - to preserve her command - relative to the internal pressures he feels. From the very first episode, we sense from her direct reports and superiors – that her style is counter to the LAPD’s way.
Two, Brenda Leigh, does she have a leader’s vision? In many episodes, she questions Pope or her direct reports about why the Priority Homicide Division has been brought in on a matter. Viewers who work for the government can relate to the constant and unpleasant aspects of budget cuts. She’s conscious of the work load borne by her team, leading them to work smarter for short bursts in order to close cases more rapidly than was done under the old structure.
Brenda’s been made very aware of how expensive overtime is, and she uses it to her benefit to keep the division’s work focused on crimes that fit its service description. However, her expectations for performance are high and for service provided by other county units, timely. Her energy in doing her work speaks to how important, worthwhile, and rewarding she believes it to be.
Because she sets high expectations among her team and holds them accountable to details and standards, she really garners their trust through the first painful season.
Toast to the Chief
She returns that trust through celebration and commendation and reminds them that they are a unique unit within a community – Los Angeles - that knows high profile cases and the media’s appetite for them like none other.
Third leadership principle - Brenda Leigh Johnson is a challenger of processes – and it is this strength that I think Pope saw most when he recruited her out of her situation in Atlanta.
First, she brought a CIA-trained interrogation ability to the LAPD. Her team observes her blending of art and science on camera while she’s in the interview room, learns how their work fits into this exercise and has grown more savvy to her thought processes.
She’s taught them over time that an interrogation is not a fishing expedition. Instead, it’s theatre during which - with all your details and assumptions in order - you methodically play your cards to the subject. As Sedgwick told Tavis Smiley in an interview, the Southern accent is its own tool.
Few suspects can match wits and nerve with Deputy Chief Johnson. They usually confess or disclose without or before the presence of a lawyer, often believing she knows more than she really does. Confession delivered. Case closed – you get the picture.
Few women characters on TV have ever held such strategic and intuitive skills.
Brenda is a thorough listener. She is brought in to the LAPD to change the culture and starts by listening to what her detectives say and how they say it.
She stumbles her way a bit through the first season, but makes the effort every good leader should - to get to know and value - each detective on her team. The most significant outcome of each relationship? Trust. That first season IS hard to watch. I know I certainly cringed every time her style clashed with the team or its existing ways and was amazed that the higher-ups didn’t clamor harder to get rid of her.
Brenda Leigh Johnson’s experience builds her backbone to challenge and change the ways in which her division of the LAPD performs its duties. She tries hard to keep her team out of department politics. She boasts of their success rate and greater community influence when presenting her budget. Whether through creative tactics or new technology, Brenda champions process improvement.
Brenda Leigh Johnson energizes her team for more productivity by empowering them to act and think, which is the fourth leadership principle we’re discussing. In changing a culture that might have previously been competitive, Brenda’s think-out-loud meetings in their squad room builds the team-as-equals approach. By keeping each detective informed about the significant elements of a case, she helps them to see connections and learn from each other. Under Brenda’s leadership style, they rise to a higher proficiency helping solve cases.
Here, Detective Tau collaborates with the chief on unraveling the significance of numbers that were anxiously repeated, over and over, by the autistic teen.
But know this! Brenda Leigh Johnson’s no micro-manager! No sir! There’s too much work to be done and it all must be done right the first time, almost immediately. It is important! They as a team - are important! And because she’s assembling the puzzle sometimes in her head and often on the squad room white board, she holds them accountable for their missing pieces. At times they report obstacles to her that result in delays. She praises them for their work-around problem solving and endorses their creative or alternative avenues.
So, over the seven years, we see Brenda grow in leading her team as she’s mastered the fifth leadership principle, valuing them as people,. Similarly, she’s come to value herself as a person, not just the occupant of her job.
Having borne no children and residing now thousands of miles away from her parents, her personal life is fairly private, solitary. That changes over time as her relationship with Fritz intensifies. Further, as she works through trust issues with her detectives and builds the team to a point of high function, she’s also seen them through personal or professional challenges that make these characters real.
She comes to value Provenza’s contributions, his deliberate pace of action, his history in the department. She does everything she can to thwart his talk of retirement… in part by appreciating him and tolerating his sometimes sophomoric remarks.
Brenda encourages the development of Detective Irene Daniels – a subordinate who appears in the first four seasons. Detective Daniels gains greater confidence and asserts herself increasingly over the years. There’s never much overt celebration of sisterhood between them, but rather the camera catches through glance and the body language that Brenda believes in Irene.
Like in so many other long-running procedurals, they DO become a bit of a workplace family. Brenda rises to the role as matriarch in a very emotional scene during which Sanchez is shot by a sniper while protecting Provenza. Detectives fan out to capture the sniper while others, awaiting a police helicopter, provide first aid for Sanchez, who is bleeding badly and is having trouble breathing. We see the three bullets level him. With blood everywhere and Sanchez losing consciousness, Brenda accompanies him to the hospital.
Uff! I get chills just thinking about the energy, the acting…. This is the reason this show is so highly thought of and received SO many awards from a whole host of organizations.
As the show was completing its final season in August of 2012, Sedgwick was interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter.
When asked what she will take away from having played Brenda for so long, Sedgwick responded:
I admire her a great deal. I admire her tenacity. I admire her number-one focus being the people that are gone and who can no longer speak for themselves.
Asked about the notion that The Closer is a breakthrough show for middle-aged women, Sedgwick observed:
I was 39 when The Closer started. It certainly wasn’t intentional for me to have a groundbreaking show. It just happened to be. The idea that I can have anything to do with the possibility of more opportunities for women is wonderful. At the time, I didn’t think big-picture that much. I went where my gut tells me, whether the character seems interesting and where the writing seems good. You take it a day at a time. That’s what we did. Then it became a phenomenon, but you never know that going in.
Kyra Sedgwick, Advanced TV Herstory thanks you for taking it one day at a time and bringing Brenda Leigh Johnson to life. Thank you for surrounding yourself with hundreds of progressive men and women who made the show and Brenda Leigh Johnson so memorable and successful.
The American TV detective show will never be the same.
In a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’ll look at the final three seasons, which contain storylines and challenges more fitting a leader who has evolved to a level of high performance. And in true fashion, Brenda rises to every occasion! Stay tuned!
You’ve heard clips from interviews with Kyra Sedgwick found on YouTube featuring. They include one with Russ Mitchell of CBS News in 2008, Tavis Smiley of The Tavis Smiley Show in 2013 and a 2011 interview at The Paley Center.
Background music is found at Freemusicarchive.org. You’ve heard Allister Thompson’s The Northern Song and Frozen House’s Listen. Thank you to Grant Abrams for editing assistance. Thanks for listening.