‘Major Crimes’ Team Reflects on Sharon’s Evolution, Differentiating From ‘The Closer’

Mary McDonnell Major Crimes
Courtesy of TNT

When viewers first met Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell), she was an antogonist, not the leading lady. Tasked with investigating officers and even auditing the Major Crimes division on “The Closer,” the Warner Bros. crime drama for TNT starring Kyra Sedgwick, the intense law enforcement professional spent the better part of four years in that role.

But something interesting happened in 2011 when Warner Bros. struck a deal with TNT to produce a spinoff entitled “Major Crimes,” with McDonnell starring as the new head of the division.

When the show premiered a year later, in August 2012, suddenly audiences got to see things from Sharon’s point of view, and they embraced the character for six seasons and now 100 episodes.

“The fact of the matter is that I don’t look at ‘Major Crimes’ as celebrating its 100th episode. I look at a franchise that’s been on the air for 13 years,” says Peter Roth, Warner Bros. Television Group president. “It all began with ‘The Closer.’ And while yes, obviously, there is a strong crime procedural element to the series, I actually look at these shows first and foremost as character based. That they took a character in Sharon who was difficult, demanding, hierarchical — she was really tough! — and turned her into the sympathetic character that she has become was a major accomplishment and example of really great writing.”

For McDonnell, getting to play a character whose sense of morality and ethics became so “alive” for her was key.

“She took care of business, and I really admired her for that,” McDonnell says. But the already acclaimed actress also learned a lot about the procedural format, which gave her a new admiration for those that embark upon that kind of storytelling.

“I’ve never done a procedural, so I’d never had to learn how to make necessary exposition integral. It’s the hardest stuff to memorize, and so you have to figure out a system of personalization, and you start to notice how your writers help you with that,” she says. “There was more asked of me in this situation than I had ever been asked to do before, and I learned a deep respect for the structure of writing.”

James Duff, who created both series and served as executive producer alongside Michael M. Robin, notes that having a foundation in “The Closer” was equal parts a challenge and a blessing for “Major Crimes.” While having roots in a proven performer for the cabler helped make the sell, at the same time, making so many changes to the format (“We wanted to be able to show views that could switch from person to person and we wanted to highlight the ordeal of the material witness,” Duff says) could come with the risk of even the most devoted fans tuning out.

But “The Closer’s” audience did not tune out, and its spinoff even picked up some new fans along the way. “Major Crimes” premiered on TNT with 9.5 million viewers. It was the largest series premiere number a basic cable show had seen at the time, and up from “The Closer’s” series finale, which drew 9.1 million. The first season’s Live+Same Day average was 5.2 million viewers, and though those numbers dipped slightly over the years, the series still remained TNT’s top show in total viewers by its fifth season (which averaged 3.2 million Live+Same Day viewers). This sixth and final season Live to Live+7 numbers have grown 200% growth from the show’s premiere.

Duff feels one of the key elements that has helped the show stay on top and resonate so strongly with its audience is the fact that the episode cases are not “torn from the newspapers” but rather “torn from the heart.” The stories and moments that have meant the most to him through the years are the ones in which the characters’ personal lives intersect with the cases. But he can’t deny there is something to “anticipating what is going to happen” in the real world that has helped the show feel fresh throughout the years, as well.

Back in the second season of the show, they tackled the murder of a transgender teen in an episode entitled “Boys Will Be Boys” and just last year, they did a multi-part arc about the rise of Neo-Nazis, “long before they were marching in Charlottesville,” Duff points out. The 100th episode of the show, which falls during the sixth and final season, is part of a multi-episode arc about men who abuse their power.

“We broke this story in May and finished it then,” Duff says. “We were trying to tell a good story, and as it turned out, we told a story that was about to emerge in the news. Suddenly these episodes were shockingly relevant. I like being able to establish a pattern of facts, and when you have an emotional issue like that where people have a multitude of opinions, and then you put the facts together, that’s pretty amazing.”

Being able to tell such powerful stories is only one part of the legacy the team behind “Major Crimes” hopes the show will leave, though.

“‘Major Crimes’ honored what is the very best in law enforcement — what is ethical, what is humane, what is family-oriented — because [it] is true that law enforcement relies on each other as any family would,” McDonnell says. “I think it kept what is good about law enforcement alive for people at a time when that which is wrong with law enforcement, that [which] has to be dealt with, is so apparent, finally, in our culture. So I do think it was a bit of a balancing point for representation of law enforcement on television, and I hope that that is what it’s remembered for.”

Maureen Ryan contributed to this report.