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On 'Closer' Inspection

Creating a successful television series isn't rocket science, but it can depend on chemistry.

Take, for instance, the most-welcome return of "The Closer," which is back for its annual three-episode winter stint (9 p.m., Monday, on TNT). What should be just another investigative crime team unraveling a mystery hour is instead a winning combination of pace, timing and — most importantly — character interaction.

Why does "The Closer" work while so many others that follow the same formula float across the screen with little or no impact?

It starts with Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson of the Los Angeles Police Department. If you've watched "The Closer," waiting for the moment she introduces herself in just that fashion is like waiting for Michael J. Fox to straighten his tie and run his hand through his hair.

It's a simple thing that has become a signature, and with Brenda it tells you all you need to know about her Georgia background, her balancing act between insecurity and confidence, her sugar addiction and her oversized handbag, and her place of authority in a mostly male environment.

Other actresses have turned the dial to extreme on their depiction of the strong woman in charge. Sedgwick's ability to to be smart, determined, authoratative — and a complete nervous wreck — is an absolute delight.

The moment this summer when she puts away a killer, then comes home and faces the reality that she has to put down her beloved cat, was handled with such understated tact that you felt transported into her livingroom.

But if "The Closer" were just about Sedgwick, then it wouldn't be much of a series. It would be, for instance, "Saving Grace" — the over-the-top, mishmash of a show starring the terrific Holly Hunter as a soul-tortured, slutty, boozing Oklahoma detective who gets visited by an angel.

Here's a tip, TV fans: When the premise of the show takes so long to explain that you find yourself yawning and/or rolling your eyes before you finish the description ... well, you've just saved yourself an hour of your life.

What sets "The Closer" apart, really, is the size of its cast and the way that for a show of such limited runs (10-12 in the summer, 3-4 in winter, another set in the spring), we've gotten to know all those who orbit around Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson.

Crusty, fastidious Provenza (G.W. Bailey) and hard-ass Flynn (Anthony Dennison) are like the Hardy Boys fed through moonshine IV drips. They bicker, they foul up, they use street smarts, they trip over red tape.

They eat breakfast as a murder scene devlops outside the diner window. Asst. Police Chief Pope (J.K. Simmons) joins them in the booth, Flynn asks if the he's bothered by the commotion. Pope, seeing a pair of detectives in the Major Crimes Unit eating instead of joing the fray, says certainly ... at which point Provenza lowers the blind to the diner window.

Bailey has been around seemingly forever, playing Rizzo in the TV version of M*A*S*H and the commander in the "Police Academy" movies among other roles. Simmons has been in everything from the "Spider-Man" films to "Law & Order"; from playing the dad in "Juno" to an Aryan supremicist in the great HBO prison drama "Oz."

These guys know how it works. The cast is so well-populated — my favorite is Michael Paul Chan as the tech-obsessed Lt. Tao — that Sedgwick can dial down her performance and get to react. It's a great luxury for the star to be able to step back because the organic nature of the ensemble is so strong.

"The Closer" doesn't rely on gooey corpses or courtroom histrionics. It doesn't cfrowd the soundtrack with familiar, emotion-spurring soft-rock hits. It lets the square-jawed FBI agent (Jon Tenney) stay mostly out of the action and instead be the husband at home to make Brenda's day a bit brighter.

If you haven't watched this series, do so during this three-week stretch. If you already are a fan, then you know this is a treat given us during this season of holiday-retread specials and reruns of other series.

And if you've seen "The Closer" and don't like it? Well, there really not much that can bee done to save you at this point.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin writes about television for Tempo. he can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com