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She’s in Control

September 19, 2010

I write a lot about cop show because they are my favorite kind of television. Oddly, I’ve never done a countdown style post! Instead of trying to cram it all into one post – though this is certainly one meaty post – I’m gonna countdown various aspects of what I enjoy about them. You’ll notice some folks are missing, but don’t fret. They’ll show up in another post.

5) Captain Claudette Wyms – The Shield – played by C.C.H. Pounder

Long before I actually began watching The Shield I kept up with its story arcs and characters. I was particularly interested in Claudette Wyms as she was played by CCH Pounder, one of my favorite character actors. On paper the character – a measured, highly capable African-American detective navigating the dueling loyalties of police work – seemed awfully familiar. While Wyms does have shades of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), her gender informs her relationship to law enforcement differently than his does. For starters, Wyms’ apparent truculence stems from society perceptions of both her race and gender. That said, Wyms, while not being less burden by gender by stereotypes of criminality, the character is certainly differently burden. While Wyms might have seen her male relatives in the black suspects who graced “The Barn” with their presence, Giardello saw himself.

At times – even for me – it was easier to dismiss Wyms (who eventually is promoted to Captain) as somewhat of a self-righteous wet blanket, I tempered this feeling with the realization that The Shield was Vic Mackey’s world and we’re all just trying not to get the beat down from him; that could make anyone a bit crispy. Captain Wyms also resonated for me because it was an effective depiction of a black female professional character navigating chronic illness (Lupus) , which was something I hadn’t seen tackled so well, honestly (but not perfectly), while skirting the temptation to diminish her character’s accomplishments or traffic in harmful “strong, black lady” tropes. Wyms ran the gambit of emotions and in the hands of Ms. Pounder, well, it makes for some “arresting” television.


4) Lt. Virgina Cooper – NY Undercover – played by Patti D’Arbanville

Legendary producer Dick Wolf is the master at refashioning celebrities not always known for possessing acting chops into amazing actors. Best I can tell is Wolf doesn’t try to work against their natural charisma or raw appeal – think: Miss Angie Harmon as ADA Abby Carmichael who was just as Texan as all get out. Prior to Harmon’s arrival on Law & Order she had strutted her stuff on an awful Baywatch spinoff entitled Baywatch Nights. On Law & Order, Harmon was really good as Carmichael, the thoughtful counterpoint to McCoy. Similarly, Patti D’Arbanville – at the time – was only known to me as the subject of a two Cat Stevens songs, a protégé of Warhol and Don Johnson’s ex. But as Lt. Virgina Cooper on the underrated “hip hop Law & Order”, New York Undercover – a show notable for starring two men of color as leads (until they got NBC Friends greedy and got turned out) – D’Arbanville shut it down. I’m not sure who was the inspiration for the character, but D’Arbanville’s portrayal was a gritty blend of the early work of actors Cathy Moriarty and Lorraine Bracco. In fact, I could easily imagine either actor playing Lt. Cooper. That said, I really enjoyed her sharp performance. Cooper was cool, contemplative and decisive. D’Arbanville had me believing she was really an undercover unit squad boss.


3) Captain Zoe Callas – Law & Order: Criminal Intent – played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

One of the things I’ve noticed from years of watching Law & Order is that female detectives – particularly those in power – rarely encounter a lot of chow chow or overtly sexist pushback from their (usually) male subordinates. To be sure, there might be differences of opinion and the occasion slammed door, the only folks who tend to give these female shot callers a lot of guff are the DAs. Okay, one particular DA, the so-called liberal – wait for it – Jack McCoy. In contrast, on Homicide: Life on the Street, Lt/Captain Megan Russert experienced both legitimate pushback, namely from Giardello who rightfully called out her disloyalty when she and not he was named Captain of the Homicide unit. Giardello’s criticisms were not about the her accepting the position, of which he agreed she was well qualified for, but not necessarily ready for, but rather her accepting the position knowing full well she was being used as a pawn in the Brass’ never ending quest to put Giardello, “in his place”, and accepted it anyway.

Russert was also the subject of some tropetastic sexism, which often times felt more anvilicious in nature rather than an attempt to explore departmental sexism. But then, while I find Tom Fontana’s female characters to be richly written, the need for authenticity at times tends to ring a bit false. In contrast, Law & Order tends to present a world where female power is somewhat embraced or if it’s resented, the bitterlicious characters have the good sense to go be bitter somewhere else.

I had mixed feelings about the arrival of Captain Callas; thrilled to see a female Captain of Major Case Squad and bummed at the departure of Captain Danny Ross (played by Eric Bogosian) who I had eagerly embraced and whose character came to be one of my favorites on the show. Captain Callas exceeded my expectations and immediately endeared herself to me, with her quick witted, perpetually manilla folder carrying self! She is an adept at teasing out information from her detectives and challenging their assumptions about a particular investigation. The other thing: she’s funny. Not rubber chicken funny, but subtle humor that surfaces every so often. So tiresome is the trope that female power is by default humorless, unless the character is infused with humor to demonstrate incompetence.


2) Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson – The Closer – played by Kyra Sedgwick

Ahh, Deputy Chief Johnson! She’s a delightful cross between the smart, awkward and sometimes goofy DA Ann Osborne from the film The Big Easy and a less intense Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison from the brilliant series Prime Suspect, which was played by the incomparable Helen Mirren.

The Tennison side of Deputy Chief Johnson was initially what attracted me to The Closer, but her goofy Ann Osbourne side is what kept me engaged. Well that and La Mommie recapping episodes for me, with less emphasis on the actual police stuff and more emphasis on how much she liked Kyra Sedgwick’s character. Like Tennison, Johnson has her share of vices, is often at odds with her colleagues and is unmatched in her accomplishments. But unlike Tennison, I find inhabiting Johnson’s world a lot less depressing. This is not to suggest I found Tennison herself depressing, but rather the universe she occupied was kind of downbeat and involved a lot less chocolate. In contrast, Deputy Chief Johnson’s world privileges chocolate, Talbots sweater sets, curled bangs and making suspects sweat out confessions.


1) Lt. Anita Van Buren – Law & Order: The Flagship – played by S. Epatha Merkerson

Earlier this summer I wrote about The X-Files’ AD Kirsch, particularly comparing his style of management to his cohort AD Skinner. I likened Kirsch’s management style to Lt. Martin Castillo of Miami Vice and Skinner’s to Barney Miller. To me, all four always looked as though just being in the same universe with their subordinates gave them migraines, but, obviously for drastically different reasons. At the time I suggested there were two kinds of cop bosses on television: the Castillos and the Millers.

Kirsch is cut of the classic mean dude boss cloth. I find Kirsch endearing and unintentionally hilarious for the exact reason I find Skinner endearing and unintentionally hilarious. While Skinner favors a more Barney Miller or Bones McCoy style of interpersonal communication – where the last word of every sentence is in ALL CAPS – Kirsch slow burns like stew in a crock pot, which is often the other style manifested by mean dude bosses – like say – Lt. Martin Castillo. Don’t let the smooth taste fool you! Irrespective of race, pretty much most mean dude bosses on police procedurals are either Miller or Castillo types.

Granted, I was only focused on male cop bosses, which explains why I didn’t introduce the third type: The Anita Van Buren style boss. I won’t even pretend I shed tears when Lt. Cragen got kicked to the curb so Law & Order could obey NBC’s mandate to get some minorities and women on their decidedly male juggernaut. To Dick Wolf’s credit, he found a brilliant actor in S. Epatha Merkerson. Combining the best elements of both Castillo and Miller – a tad more pleasant than Castillo and less conciliatory than Miller – Van Buren, or “Louie” as she was affectionately known by Det. Ray Curtis, carved out her own space in the TV cop universe and whose, “Well” coupled with a shoulder shrug and a stare, were as iconic as Adam Schiff’s eating sandwiches while pretending to listen to yet another of McCoy’s politicized and decidedly non jurisprudence related rants.

Van Buren was complex and could be both stern and nurturing at the same time. She never coddled her detectives, yet was ferociously protective of them, particularly Curtis and Briscoe. In addition, I really enjoyed the way her relationship with Det. Ed Green presented a complex portrayal of black male and female work dynamics. Often times Green got a bit too “familiar” with Van Buren and her responses to him, while not explicitly stating, “Look, turkey, this ain’t no family barbecue and we ain’t cousins!” Green quickly got the message and began showing her the respect and conducting himself in a somewhat more professional manner.

It’s a testament to the fine writing this was handled in such a thoughtful way and was yet another way the character was shown to be adept at negotiating her relationships with her subordinates. This didn’t mean she didn’t have her favorite! I have nothing other than 20 years of watching the show to support this, but I believe it was Curtis and not Briscoe who was ultimately her favorite. Of course, she deeply cared for both, but her relationship with Curtis enabled him to be mentored into a very fine detective. Something we never got to see with Logan (who thought he knew it all) and Green (whom she seemed to rigidly enforce boundaries with).

I was fascinated by Van Buren’s relationship with Logan, because he seemed to really like her, though she seemed less enthused – but not disapproving – towards him. Van Buren was flawed and made two key missteps in her tenure: shooting two would be muggers, killing one who was mentally disabled and suing the department for racial discrimination. The former profoundly affected her (both kids were black) and the latter seemed uncharacteristic for the show, yet oddly characteristic for Van Buren.

When I wrote about about the show concluding its run I failed to acknowledge that Van Buren was the heart of the show, but she was. Not because she was a woman or a black person, but because housed in her diminutive stature and under the array of increasingly terrible Beverly Johnson Driving Miss Daisy wigs existed an interesting, intelligent, unforgettable feminist icon.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2010 10:27 pm

    One of the things I really like about this post is how it gets away from the standard trope of a woman trying to be the boss in a “man’s world” — a situation in which the woman has often been shown not to have really “deserved” the position, and has often been thwarted by men who can’t accept their subservient role. Instead you’ve pointed out that TV is recognizing the many different ways these women wield power in their traditionally male-dominated environments. I’m definitely going to look at these — and other crime shows — differently from now on.

  2. September 22, 2010 2:58 pm

    One of the things I really like about this post is how it gets away from the standard trope of a woman trying to be the boss in a “man’s world” — a situation in which the woman has often been shown not to have really “deserved” the position, and has often been thwarted by men who can’t accept their subservient role.

    This is a great point. There definitely is a tendency to present female power as earned and somewhat respected. It’s what I really love about the shows and these particular characters.

  3. September 23, 2010 5:30 pm

    The only shows I’ve seen in all listed here are “Prime Suspect” (all of it) and “The Closer” (a few episodes). Frankly, I’m not much of a television watcher at all which is why I have little to offer of value in your excellent column.

    However, I’ve just started watching “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (purely for the D’Onofrio). I’ve seen 20 episodes and haven’t seen any other L&O, at all. I noticed S. Epatha Merkerson played Anita Van Buren (briefly) in an episode called “Badge”. So does the Law and Order Universe merge seamlessly or are there cracks? Condolences on the cancellation, by the way.

    Your “mean boss” paragraph made me laugh and smile in gleeful recognition! Maybe they’ve all got IBS and just handle it in different ways?

  4. September 23, 2010 6:17 pm

    @Kelly, The Law & Order universe is fairly seamless, though sometimes they have some hilarious continuity errors – like Jerry Orbach playing a sleazy defense attorney prior to playing the world’s greatest detective Lenny Briscoe.

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