Kyra Sedgwick, with her unpretentious intelligence and pretty face of triangles, has never been an easy casting choice. Glinting with humor yet never goofy, attractive in an unpeggable way, she's too often been shunted to the side of the action.
With TNT's The Closer, Sedgwick has a big, bouncy role finely tailored to her. Tart-mouthed Brenda Johnson has relocated from Atlanta to Los Angeles to head her own special-crime unit. She's known for ''closing'' getting a confession that'll stick. This brings a slightly new angle to the glut of police dramas: Rather than relying on CSI-style gadgetry, Closer's kick comes in the knotty conversations Johnson has with her suspects. In the premiere, a woman is found beaten and shot beyond recognition in the home of a software genius who's disappeared. Johnson's interviews with the egghead's devout assistant are twisty, purry little numbers. All the more important, since the crime's solution is so simple, it's sort of quaint, like one of those two-minute mysteries: glass...water...oh, Ned and Norma are fish!
Also unlike CSI (and Law & Order, and most other police procedurals), the star here isn't the crime but the character. Johnson isn't above using her craft master manipulation on her resentful, mostly male unit, as well as on her new boss, a married man with whom she once had an affair (Oz's J.K. Simmons, coolly alert as a watchdog). Her Georgia drawl is unhampered, her conversation honeyed with y'alls. Sedgwick's brainy performance winks at what Johnson knows: that outsiders are either charmed by or scornful of Southerners and both reactions can be turned to her advantage. (She's kin to Holly Hunter's tough yet strangely darling Copycat detective.)
By making Johnson a sassy Southerner, The Closer is relying on the charm factor, and the show can be just as manipulative as Ms. Johnson herself. To display her cute side, they've given her a love interest in an old FBI buddy (Brooklyn South's Jon Tenney, whose distant, manly affability makes him seem like a neighbor you grill with every few months). She's also been invested with an ayy-dorable snacking habit. In the final scene, she returns to her hotel and practically makes love to a Ding Dong. The fetishization of women indulging in food is wearing: The I love burgers and I'm a reg'lar girl! ethos jumpstarted by Cameron Diaz circa There's Something About Mary has now become shorthand for ''she's down-to-earth.'' Have a woman jam a large lamb shank down her maw, and she's just swell. There's got to be another way to give a female character layers. Like...by giving her layers.
Fortunately, Sedgwick's is such a bracing performance, she sweeps briskly past these bumps. Ultimately, her Johnson is a charming blend of don't-give-a-crap arrogance and a defensiveness that comes from succeeding in a deeply macho world. She's a master of the verbal groin kick: ''If I liked being called a bitch to my face, I'd still be married,'' she snaps at one officer. Here's a lady who doesn't care if you hate her, so long as you're professional about it.