The script offered only five words of instruction: "Brenda looks in desk drawer."
But actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of TNT's hit drama The Closer, transforms the mundane direction into a scene fraught with human complexities, frailties and obsessions. For two long minutes, her character, Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, first steals quick glances, then gazes longingly at the drawer.
Finally, Johnson, a veteran detective with an uncanny ability to elicit confessions from the most hardened criminals, yanks open the drawer and lunges at a vending-machine snack cake that's lying inside it. With abandon, she rips through the cellophane and into the sugar-laced confection with one reckless bite. The relief in her body can be felt right through the screen.
Of such moments are television's greatest detectives made, and this summer many of the best of the breed will be on display. From Sedgwick's return tomorrow night in The Closer, to the arrival July 30 of Kevin Whately in PBS' Inspector Lewis (a highly anticipated sequel to the long-running Inspector Morse), prime time will sparkle with engagingly offbeat sleuths and ever-so-clever - but often emotionally-maimed - crime solvers. (Think Tony Shalhoub's Monk, which returns July 7 on cable channel USA.)
In the snack-cake scene, Sedgwick allows viewers to know that Johnson, though a tough police professional, also is vulnerable - and possesses myriad tics and neuroses. Her performance offers a glimpse into what makes certain sleuths stand out from the pack. Though television is called the producer's medium, when it comes to the most popular and enduring detectives, the actors often are the keys to a character's success. From Peter Falk's Columbo and Angela Lansbury's Murder She Wrote,
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to David Suchet's Poirot and Helen Mirren's Prime Suspect (which ends its celebrated 14-year-run in November on PBS), the stars ultimately shape the evolution of their characters.
It is no accident that in each of the series listed above, the lead actors and actresses also became producers - with Falk and Lansbury taking complete control and ultimately jettisoning the writers who created Lt. Columbo and Jessica Fletcher.
"When you have a creative actress like Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, or Jeremy Brett in Sherlock Holmes, or John Thaw in Morse, or Kevin Whately in Inspector Lewis, they find the character in the beginning and then they take the things that they like and just keep going deeper and deeper with them," says Rebecca Eaton, who as executive producer of PBS' Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre is responsible for bringing dozens of celebrated sleuths to American TV.
"And those traits, tendencies, characteristics or, in some cases, idiosyncrasies become the very things that we love to watch."
A human moment
Eaton's point about the actor or actress as auteur is underscored by a scene from Prime Suspect 6, the most recently aired installment of the ground-breaking drama featuring Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. The moment features a weary and irritable Tennison arriving home late at night and trying to turn on her TV.
"She's in her own house, by herself and she can't find the remote - which was not in the script," Eaton says. "It was completely Helen making it up, because in looking for the remote, you can just see the chaos of Jane's personal life - and her frustration with herself, and her anger just below the surface. You see all kinds of things, plus it's a very, very human moment - and it was all Helen creating on the spot."
While screenwriter Lynda La Plante invented the Tennison character that made its debut in 1992 on PBS, Mirren also has taken an active role behind the cameras in shaping her evolution.
"Helen's now one of the producers and she has final say over the script and she's very involved in the creation of the show," says Eaton, who is also an executive producer of the series.
"Jane Tennison wasn't written for Helen, she was cast. But Helen quickly laid the blueprint for what this character would become over the years."
`Marriage of creation'
Sedgwick's Brenda Johnson, who became the hottest new character on cable TV last summer, has been described as the American version of Jane Tennison.
Both characters were brought in as commanding officers of big city homicide squads consisting mostly of men, several of whom were not happy to be working for a hard-driving female supervisor. Both are obsessive, quirky and highly competent on the job, with Johnson known as "The Closer" for her uncanny ability to go one on one with suspects in the interrogation room and invariably get them to confess. Like Tennison's, her personal life leaves a lot to be desired.
Sedgwick does not yet have the executive producer kind of clout that Mirren has accrued, but she is playing a similarly active role in determining what her character will become.