It is always inspiring when a television series decides to go against the grain. But it’s something else entirely when a show that is not only known, but beloved, for being a reliable procedural, decides to shake things up a bit. And by a bit, I mean massively change formats from stand-alone case-of-the-week episodes to an intense five episode serial arc. And when the show manages to make the change work and also makes you wonder why other programs aren’t giving the same shake-up a try when the results can be this good, it’s doubly impressive.
Such is the case being made for Major Crimes, which concludes its experiment with changing up its format with a stunning five-episode arc this Monday. With four years under their belt as one of cable’s highest-rated dramas, no one would have faulted them if upon receiving an episode order increase from the network, they had simply played it safe and produced five additional one-off, reliably crowd pleasing episodes, and gone off on their hiatus without a backwards look.
Instead, the writers and producers decided to play the odds and take the five episodes to not only tell a more complex crime story than can be told in the standard 42 minute installment, but also to use the change in structure to reexamine their established cast of characters as they react to different circumstances.
Taking multiple episodes or even a season to solve a crime has been done before with other television series, with varying success. TNT’s own Murder in the First has been doing it for the past two season years, with mostly tepid critical response, and weak ratings. Fellow cabler AMC had The Killing, and over on broadcast television both American Crime and American Crime Story are taking on the one-story-told-over-a-season approach as opposed to the murder-of-the-week format that Major Crimes and many other procedurals employ. And certainly Major Crimes has had story arcs in the past where a case or situation might recur in the story over several episodes, but those were always combined with the regular procedural in the foreground. I’m hard pressed, however, to think of another show which has so upended its normal structure to drop everything and focus on one case for five episodes.
Throughout the “Hindsight” episode arc, I have been more and more impressed by how well the gamble of the show’s writers and producers to reinvent themselves has paid off. The characters, most of whom are so beloved to viewers because we felt we knew them inside and out are suddenly revealed, warts and all, in ways we’ve not ever seen before.
While a regular episode of Major Crimes often focuses on one or two of the show’s ensemble cast with their secondary storylines while solving the crime of the week, in just the first episode of the winter arc there were no less than five of the regular characters who had significant plotlines set into motion – and that was in addition to the beginning of a riveting crime story taking place in the foreground of the episode.
The talent of the Major Crimes writers to create and execute interesting cases with twists and turns is long established. What we’re not used to, however, and what seems to make this set of episodes so remarkable, is how the intensity of these installments, along with the structure of the sustained arc, work together to also function as another storytelling device, and a new prism from which to view the characters. As Mary McDonnell (Captain Sharon Raydor) says in a recently published interview with MajorCrimesTV.net, “The difficult part is when you are solving a crime, and you’re used to being crackerjack crime solvers, you do one of them a week. And when you have one you can’t solve, and you are on the 4th episode, and you still don’t have it done, it brings up all these different feelings of frustration and complex issues and trying to continue to hold each other up when you haven’t really slept in nights, and you’re still not there.”
In fact, it seems that because we’re so used to the Major Crimes squad having things tied up by the end of an episode, it’s not only the characters who are brought to a new heightened level of frustration, but viewers as well, as we yearn for these beloved characters to solve the case. Whether or not that was one of the aims of this five episode arc, or just a fortuitous side effect, I’m not sure. But I do know that the frustration I feel when each installment is over, and I realize I have a week to wait for the next one was real.
The episode also helped me reawaken to the fact that Major Crimes has been quietly breaking ground in another way that has flown under the radar since its premiere in 2012. With the current debates raging in Hollywood about casting more diverse actors and creating more roles for those actors, Major Crimes has been doing it, without fanfare, for several years.
For the uninitiated, Major Crimes takes place in the LAPD’s Major Crimes division, an elite squad of cops that oversee the toughest cases. The squad is led by Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell), who came to the squad an outsider, after spending much of her career as an outsider as the head of Internal Affairs for the LAPD.
Not only is the head of the squad a woman, but all three of the leads of the show – Raydor, Lt. Flynn (Tony Denison), and Lt. Provenza (G.W. Bailey) are what Hollywood would traditionally call “past their prime”. In an industry where we can count on one hand the number of actresses over fifty who are leading their own shows, Major Crimes is notable for that alone. Mary McDonnell as Captain Sharon Raydor, and Lieutenants Provenza (GW Bailey) and Flynn (Tony Denison) are inarguably the leads of the show. They also all happen to be in their 60’s. The audience has grown to love the level headedness, compassion, and experience that Raydor possesses – qualities that are a result of her experience and longevity of her career, making her a perfect fit as the leader of the squad.
Lest you think think that having a kick-ass lady-cop-of-a-certain-age isn’t enough, I point your attention to the rest of the squad, a virtual United Colors of Benneton of racial and ethnic diversity. Series creator James Duff has said that it was always his attention to have a squad on TV that matched the squads out on the streets of LA, and they do. There’s the African American Amy Sykes (Kearran Giovanni), who joined the LAPD after a stint in Afghanistan. Latino-American Julio Sanchez (Raymond Cruz) is the guy you want on your team when you’re being wronged (but never want to be on the wrong side of). Asian-American Mike Tao (Michael Paul Chan) might be a complete tech nerd, but he’s also one of the smartest cops on the team.
The same goes for the aforementioned Lieutenants, who, despite some typical skirt chasing earlier on in the series, are now well established in dating age-appropriate women. In Flynn’s case, he’s also dating Raydor, which, has also been a lovely, mature process, with nods to both characters’ life history, respective emotional baggage, as well as their more cautious approach to love later in life.
And in case that isn’t enough, in the very first episode of the series, Raydor took in a teenage boy who had been forced to hustle on the streets after being abandoned by his mother. Over the course of the series she nurtures him into adulthood, as he struggles with coming out as gay, and adjusting to having normalcy and stability for the first time in his life.
Major Crimes certainly isn’t the only show on television today with a diverse cast, but it does seem to often not get the credit it deserves for having not made diversity a priority, but rather making diversity a foregone conclusion.
Despite its success, Major Crimes has long gone without much critical attention or notice, as it has been relegated to the flock of procedurals which are considered reliable and steady, but not as flashy and edgy as the new, experimental fare that is being offered to TV viewers through a plethora of new delivery methods. But while we’re experiencing the structure-bending happening on anthology series such as American Crime, or praising the diverse casting choices and complex women of Orange is the New Black, I’d like to suggest taking another look at Major Crimes. Much like its ubiquitous presence as the cornerstone of TNT’s original program, it is steadily and reliably making diversity a priority without fanfare or notice, even while shaking up the very foundation of what it means to be a procedural by experimenting with structure and the development of story in a really unique way.
If you aren’t caught up on the most recent season head over to TNT to catch up on the Hingsight episodes, and tune in for the conclusion this coming Monday on TNT.
For a one stop shop of all things Major Crimes, visit Major Crimes TV. With exclusive interviews, advance photos, plot summaries, and ratings, MCTV has something for every fan of our favorite LAPD team!
Additional contribution by M. Sharpe
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