Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s the Character, Stupid

Whether it's TV, film or literature, I’ve always gravitated towards strong, smart female protagonists.  I don’t much care if they’re saints or sinners - even a little cray cray - if they’ve got some smarts, a little bit of cunning even, I’m on board.

There’s nothing I hate more than a female character being dumbed down for the sake of the plot. I’ve read chick-lit where I’ve wanted to throw the book across the room because the protagonist is a weak-willed twit.  I’ve read suspense novels where the female character stretches patience and credibility beyond all reason, all because the author needs her to be in a precarious situation.  I remember thinking this when I read “The Pelican Brief,” a book I otherwise enjoyed.  Darby Shaw had been portrayed as brilliant, but she got dumbed down for the sake of the plot.  She could crack a major conspiracy, but she didn’t realize using her credit cards all over town would lead the bad guys right to her? 

Mitch McDeere never would have been so dumb.

A female protagonist who was never dumbed down for the sake of plot was Brenda Leigh Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgewick), late of the recently departed “The Closer.”  Brenda was a total bad-ass, not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the vilest of criminals in order to get justice.  Granted, it wasn’t always a fair fight, because some of them were dumber than a box of rocks, but it was never more satisfying than when Brenda nailed a murderer who underestimated her because of her petite frame, pastel sweater sets and honey-drenched Southern twang.  While her pursuit of criminals often came at great personal and professional cost, you could never accuse her of being sacrificed to propel the plot forward (remember, character drives plot, not the other way around).




Brenda Leigh Johnson, one of the most intriguing female protagonists in film, TV or literature, has taken her last confession on "The Closer." (photo credit: TNT/Karen Neal)
While Brenda was hardcore in the interrogation room, what made her all the more intriguing was that she was by turns a total mess and a total softie.  She was a sugar addict, keeping a stash of candy bars in her desk drawer and let’s not forget those ubiquitous chocolate snack cakes, which seemed to fortify her after a tough day at the office.  She wore garish dresses, hung onto her oversized purse like it was a life-preserver and dissolved into a quivering mass of tears when her cat, Kitty, succumbed to illness.  She was fiercely protective of her squad, crazy about her parents and deeply in love with husband, Fritz.      

My point is, Brenda was smart and strong but flawed.  That’s much more interesting, and frankly, relatable, than a character who is all good or all bad or a charter member of Mensa or a candidate for World’s Dumbest Person.  It’s the details, the – pardon the pun – shades of gray that make for a compelling character.  They can be a mess and make mistakes, be led astray and even have daft moments, because that’s what how we are in life.  And that can make us a lot more willing to go along for the ride.

I’m not sure if I’m going to watch “Major Crimes,” the spinoff featuring the Captain Sharon Raydor character.  Raydor, who’s grim, by-the-book persona, provided an interesting counterpart to Brenda’s more colorful and audacious antics, may not be entertaining or outrageous enough to drive the story forward.  Then again, we don’t know a whole lot about her, so perhaps time will tell if she’s the right person to lead the Major Crimes Squad, or if “The Closer” should have bowed out gracefully.

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