When Kyra Sedgwick announced that the seventh season of The Closer would be her last, TNT did not tell showrunner James Duff that it would snuff out the series. Instead, the network asked him to create a new show that would also shine brightly, but without its star.
The Closer, which has led scripted cable with an average 6 million viewers for its final episodes, ends where new series Major Crimes picks up—literally, as the show debuts following its predecessor’s finale on Aug. 13. While many spinoffs feature one or two characters from the original, most of Major Crimes’ cast reprise their Closer roles.
“I don’t think anyone has ever done exactly what we’re doing here before,” Duff says. “We created a new show… keeping the core ensemble, switching around how the show works and finding a new center of gravity.”
Major Crimes broadens The Closer’s perspective on the criminal justice system, even taking the substantial budget cuts to California’s courts in the past few years as a relevant plot point. “The system is reeling from the financial cuts, and the only way to try and stave off collapse is to pursue more plea bargains,” Duff says. “[Major Crimes] is a reflection of what’s actually happened in California.”
Duff’s desire to accurately reflect both current affairs and his characters has been evident in his writing, particularly Sedgwick’s Deputy Brenda Leigh Johnson, a character lauded for female empowerment. Before The Closer, Duff felt broadcast “seemed hell-bent on this politically correct version of what women in the workplace were,” he says. “I wanted to show a character who was powerful—not because she could act like a man, but because she knew how to tap into her feminine strength.”
Duff credits his close relationships with female family members, especially his mom and sister, for his ability to write strong characters working women relate to.
Even Johnson’s Southern twang is a nod to Duff’s family and home state of Texas (though after moving to New York City, Duff fought hard, even taking voice lessons to shed his accent).
Before writing professionally, Duff performed in plays and commercials but found it creatively unfulfilling, he says. While working as a waiter, Duff in 1984 penned his first play, Home Front, which opened in London after being retitled The War at Home.
Duff’s work in television began with the TV movie Doing Time on Maple Drive, a writing project he had turned down twice before finally agreeing when the concept was tweaked. The film—which costarred a young Jim Carrey—earned Duff a 1992 Emmy nomination.
“I’d never written for television before,” he says. “I remember going to my agent’s office and saying, ‘Could you show me what TV movies look like?’”
Duff joined Michael M. Robin and Greer Shephard of the Shephard/Robin production company (Nip/Tuck) in 2004 to create The D.A. for ABC, which the network “didn’t get behind very much,” scheduling it in a Fridaynight death slot before canceling it after four episodes.
Serendipitously, Michael Wright, president and head of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM, who was then heading TNT’s original programming division, was seeking a companion for TNT’s successful primetime run of Law & Order as its first foray into original programming. Wright approached Duff, Robin and Shephard with a request for a show that wouldn’t “scare away women, and that was different enough from the other procedurals,” Duff recalls.
Though following a given format, Duff says there was never an “authoritative relationship” with TNT; over seven seasons, Duff says, they have developed a friendship.
“[Duff’s] work is like the man himself— a wonderfully unique combination of smart, funny and deeply felt,” Wright says. “His characters vibrate with authenticity because his writing is as fearless as he is.”
Although the back-to-back finale and premiere of The Closer and Major Crimes has given Duff no time for a summer vacation, he spends his downtime on the Hollywood Stock Exchange, an online multiplayer game where players buy and sell “shares” of actors, movies and TV shows using simulated money. It’s the industry’s version of fantasy football. “I’m addicted to it,” he says. “I have a portfolio that’s almost a billion dollars—although it’s all fake money. I can’t really do anything with it.” Which is OK: In TNT’s book, he is doing pretty well with the real shares he has.
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