Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”

Original Airdate: July 20, 2015 on TNT

Crime dramas have been an evergreen staple of broadcast entertainment since the days of radio and now it seems they’re more popular than ever. I checked a few recent ratings charts and on average 8 of the 25 most highly rated shows are crime dramas, and that’s just the big primetime networks. I’m a little surprised it’s taken me this long to get to one! The reason this genre is so popular is obvious–a mystery is intrinsically interesting. There’s the obvious fact that finding out who committed a crime is a natural plot driver, but there’s also an opportunity to dig deep into rich veins of emotion and to address complex social issues and public institutions. There’s ample opportunity to work on multiple levels.

Major is a spinoff of The Closer, which was a reliable ratings hit on cable but missed me entirely. This alone speaks to the glut of crime dramas–I’ve sampled a lot of shows and enjoy the genre but never got around to this major hit series. Major is also a bit unusual for a spinoff in that it retains much of the cast and setting of the previous series, promoting a supporting character to the lead and keeping its creator, James Duff. From what I’m told, it also carries over Closer’s approach to storytelling, mixing intensely plotted procedure with emotional stories about the personal lives of the characters. It’s a descendant of NYPD Blue as opposed to Law & Order.

A quick note: This episode’s stems from events in Episode 35, “Jane Doe #38.” I watched that episode for background as well, but I won’t discuss it except as it’s relevant to the episode under review. I will say that it’s excellent and exponentially better than “Targets.” Considering that the story set up in that episode is still churning 23 episodes later, it might not be a bad place to jump into Major if you’re wanting to come in at a high point.

Strengths

  • Compelling mystery. The strength of the mystery du jour is what crime procedurals live or die on, and Major acquits itself well in this regard. It takes the Columbo approach where the viewer knows who is responsible and has the pleasure of watching the cast piece things together. Two cops have been shot and killed and the LAPD’s Major Crimes unit is pulling out all the stops to find the killers. Their best lead is a witness with ties to real-life gang MS-13, who have been major contributors to the astronomical crime rates in Central America’s blood-soaked Northern Triangle. The witness is named Rico Fornes (Carlos Pratts, McFarland, USA) and the bulk of the episode is spent tracking him down; he also carries the bulk of the hour’s emotional freight. Only Rico (and the viewer) knows that the murderers were posing as police. This was entertaining and reasonably sophisticated for 43 minutes of TV, but it could still be improved–see below.
  • Sleek. The production and direction of Major is very of the moment, which makes sense since it just aired a few months ago. Even considering that, though, everything is beautifully shot–the opening scene wrung mawkish, maudlin pathos out of its admittedly serious subject matter, but I was willing to forgive that since so much tender love and care had obviously been put into Hollywood-level staging. Mary McDonnell’s lead performance as Cap. Sharon Raydor is exquisite, complex and understated and is a fresh casting choice in the endless crowd of police procedurals. The genre lends itself to blustery scenery chewing–see Raymond Cruz’s (Breaking Bad) portrayal of Det. Julio Sanchez.

Weaknesses

  • Unsatisfying feint. While I like the way the show handles the red herring of MS-13, it’s not great that a potential MS-13 connection is way more interesting that what actually turns out to be going on. G.W. Bailey’s Det. Lt. Louis Provenza even lampshades this. “Well, you’d hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals and that our people had died fighting the worst of the worst–but they were a couple of ex-cons playing dress-up and shaking down old people.” Yeah! You’re right! I would hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals! Like MS-13! Especially since they don’t do a very good job of fleshing out the actual explanation. I realize it’s been done before, but it seems like an unnecessarily elaborate setup to impersonate cops to facilitate armed robbery. As Robert Gossett’s Chief Russell Taylor takes note of in the first scene, police/public relations are low right now. The show does not articulate the reason relations are low, which is of course the extensive and high-profile protests about police murdering black and brown citizens in cold blood. Part of the public response to these murders is to increase recording, documentation and scrutiny of police, especially in situations where they’re openly pointing guns at old black men at traffic stops, as is the case here. A one-off or ongoing story about MS-13 would have been fascinating, but I would have settled for actual internal police corruption as opposed to two yutzes with costumes. I just think it’s a bad idea to tease viewers with more interesting plotlines than what you actually end up delivering.
  • Paper-thin B plot. One of the key aspects of this show is that Raydor has adopted a wayward youth, Rusty Beck, as played by the extremely foxy Graham Patrick Martin. Rusty was abandoned at age 15 and in “Jane” developed an emotional connection to 15 year old victim Alice Herrera, another child who tried (and failed) to survive in a harsh world. Even after we learn who killed her and why, her background is shrouded in mystery and Rusty is determined to find out who she was. In “Targets,” Rusty has a sketchy contact and he uses police resources to clandestinely run a background check under the guise of helping the frantic double murder investigation. This is not really enough to sustain a subplot, even with the flaccid attempt at adding an emotional angle in the form of Rusty’s guilt about…not helping? Pretending to help? Which doesn’t make sense, since presumably he spent some time actually running legitimate checks as he was asked to do. And it’s not like he’s using police resources for a shitty reason–he’s trying to honor a murder victim, not find a drug hookup. As I said above, the Alice story as originally presented is gold–give this follow-up plot the chance to breathe it deserves.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. This episode of Major Crimes is competently executed, but unless you’re an insatiable crime drama fan, it’s not a reason to come back for more. Don’t write off Crimes entirely, though–I’d give “Jane” 8/10. The verdict is out on whether or not that episode is representative in terms of quality.
NEXT TIME: Danny Phantom.

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Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”