In a lot of ways the success of Major Crimes is both staggering and, perhaps, expected.
While dubbed a spin-off, the show is more of a successor to parent series The Closer, which having helped establish TNT’s scripted brand, wrapped its run in 2012 after some seven seasons. Since that day in the Summer of 2012 when The Closer ended and Major Crimes began, the show has been a runaway success, scoring critical acclaim and even bigger ratings than The Closer (in its most recent season Major Crimes’ total audience is a tick over ten million viewers).
A successor series successfully supplanting its parent series is the rarest of feats. The Closer and Major Crimes cast member Jonathan Del Arco recently told TVWise that it was a “rare” occurrence in the industry. Especially as, historically, successor series that are attempting to replicate the formula of the original without a certain cast member, such as The Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace, tend to “bomb”.
But what sets Major Crimes apart from the pack and just how did the notion of continuing the core essence of The Closer, sans Emmy winner Kyra Sedgwick, come to be?
The story begins in 2010 when Kyra Sedgwick made the decision not to continue on as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, a role for which she would earn seven Emmy nominations (and one win). The entire cast were conducting a roundtable interview for the special features on the season six DVD and, as everyone was already assembled, when that task was complete the relevant people stayed behind so that the production team could have their end-of-year meeting.
It was in that meeting that Kyra dropped the bombshell. “She told us she didn’t want to come back after year seven and she sent out a letter as she was leaving the meeting to all of our bosses”, The Closer and Major Crimes creator James Duff recalls. While the notion of Kyra leaving might have spelled the end of the show, it was not an altogether unexpected development,
Prior to this meeting, James Duff had had a conversation with Michael Wright, who was at that time serving as President and Head of Programming for TNT. In said conversation, the two, aware that Kyra might not want to come back, had already discussed the possibility of continuing on without Brenda Leigh Johnson as the lead character. According to Duff, it was Wright who initially floated the idea of having Mary McDonnell’s Captain Sharon Raydor assume command of the Major Crimes Division.
“Michael Wright had said ‘We’ve got Mary McDonnell there, is there any way you can transition her from the villain to the lead?’”, Duff tells TVWise. “So I said ‘Yeah, given enough time I can transition her, but I would have to have a bigger season and more elements to play with to make it happen. She wouldn’t be liked right away and I’d have to find a way to make her more personable and all that sort of stuff’.
So there was already something of a plan when Kyra Sedgwick sent off a letter informing TNT brass – including President of Turner Entertainment Networks Steve Koonin – that she would not be back for an eighth season. Upon receiving the letter, and after having already been briefed by Michael Wright about potentially continuing the series in such a scenario, Koonin immediately got on the phone with showrunner James Duff and endorsed the plan to do a spin-off, keeping “as many of the characters as we can”.
Not long after, Duff came into the TNT offices for an official pitch meeting with Michael Wright. “I told him ‘We can make it different this way, because 93% of all murders end in a deal and we never tell that story. So we can actually start telling that story, we can make a move in the direction of authenticity and see if that helps us’”. James Duff gives Wright a lot of credit for keeping the show alive in the form of Major Crimes. “To his very great credit, he ordered us directly to series, he did not force us to make a pilot”.
It was at this point that Wright, in keeping with their earlier discussions, gave Duff an order for six additional episodes for The Closer’s final season, allowing him to begin the process of rehabilitating the character of Sharon Raydor, whilst simultaneously handing out a ten episode-straight-to series order to Major Crimes. Mary McDonnell was upped to regular on the final season of The Closer and talks began in earnest with the main cast, in an attempt to sign as many as possible to Major Crimes.
While most were excited to continue with these roles they had been inhabiting, some cast members, while eager to continue, were nevertheless uncertain if Major Crimes would be as big of a hit as The Closer had been. “I wasn’t sure if it would be a hit out of the gate”, said Michael Paul Chan. “But I knew we could do it. The core ensemble is very tight and we all work quite well together and James [Duff] was not done telling stories”.
Before too long, a picture started to emerge as one-by-one cast members agreed to continue on to Major Crimes. From G.W. Bailey, to Tony Denison, Michael Paul Chan, Robert Gossett, Phillip P. Keene, Raymond Cruz, Jon Tenney, Jonathan Del Arco and even Kathe Mazur, who had recurred on several episodes of The Closer as DDA Andrea Hobbs. But two actors felt it was time to move on: Corey Reynolds, who played Sgt Gabriel; and J.K. Simmons who starred in all seven seasons as Will Pope.
Reynolds exit was handled deftly, with his character, who had long been close to Brenda Leigh Johnson, following her to her new job in the DA’s office. Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons character had finally attained his goal of being named Chief of the LAPD, meaning that the role he had played on The Closer – namely that of Assistant Chief of Operations – would be filled by Robert Gossett’s Russell Taylor in Major Crimes.
That being said, Duff tells me that he tried and failed to convince Simmons to stick around. “I tried to keep him when we were transitioning from The Closer to Major Crimes. I wanted him to stay and a part of him really wanted to stay, but a part of him also knew he needed to move on – it was sort of a now or never moment for him and I think he made the right choice. If you look at Whiplash, it’s impossible to look at his performance and say anything but J.K. made the right choice”.
And so on August 13th 2012, while The Closer aired its series finale, Major Crimes opened with a strong series premiere. All told, in live+7 delivery, the audience for that episode was more than 9.5 million total viewers, 2.2 million adults 18-49 and 2.9 million adults 25-54 – which at the time ranked as the highest rated series premiere in basic cable history. While the live+same day numbers have slipped in recent years, the total audience for the show is still growing and Major Crimes has consistently received episode order increases over the past few years as it is a proven commodity for TNT.
But just what is it that made Major Crimes such a hit? As Raymond Cruz demonstrates early on in season four, it’s a case of, as James Duff put it, “these actors, all this time in, still coming in to hit it out the park, every time. They really do want to do that”. Another key factor in the success of Major Crimes is Rusty Beck, as played by Graham Patrick Martin, who has had to face numerous hardships including living rough, dealing with his sexuality and the dangers that come from being a witness in a capital murder case. Duff described the character of Rusty as “the beating heart” of the show.
Interestingly, things could have gone quite differently, as the original plan was for the Rusty character to appear in only one episode: the series finale of The Closer. “I did not know when I was in there pitching that Rusty was going to be there”. It was only after James Duff and producing partner Michael M. Robin saw Graham Patrick Martin’s performance and were suitably blown away that they started thinking about how to keep the character on Major Crimes. “[Graham] was so good that my producing partner and I turned to each other one night after watching him and said ‘Is there a way Sharon could take him home and adopt him and hold onto him?”.
Duff says it was an act of his unconscious and the development was not even remotely planned, but it was incredibly fortuitous. “Rusty actually spoke for the audience in that opening scene. The first time he sits down with Raydor he says ‘I don’t want you to take this personally, but I don’t know you and I don’t like you and I would rather be dealing with Brenda’ and Sharon says ‘Well you are standing at the end of a very long line. Chief Johnson is not here and I am who you get’”.
If Rusty was the audience then, “Sharon ends up taking the audience home with her as she ends up taking the boy home with her and we got a lot of mileage out of that”, Duff adds. “His testy relationship with her for the first year and a half and his only slowly coming round to where he really really trusted her mirrored the journey of the audience and I try to keep that in mind as we’re going along. So, truthfully as much as I would like to tell you that it was all genius aforethought, it really was just Michael M. Robin and I making it up as we went along”.
While Rusty is the beating heart of Major Crimes, Duff does nevertheless field a fair amount of criticism for the character’s development over the past few years. “I got a lot of flak from people when he came out, which was shocking to me, ‘did you not know this boy was gay’, I wanted to say. We knew before he knew for the most part and people said ‘why did you make this boy gay?’ and I said ‘It’s really interesting, in the entire time I’ve been writing, no one has ever asked me why I made a character straight”.