When we spoke to executive producer James Duff at the beginning of this season of Major Crimes, he discussed how the focus for this season centered around the theme of “courage”, and how that issue would reverberate through the lives of the characters. Catching up with Duff on the eve of the groundbreaking winter premiere, it’s clear that exploring the themes about courage was not only for the characters, but for the writers themselves as they embarked on a new structure for the series. For the first time ever, Major Crimes will break from its procedural format to create a serialized arc out of the final five episodes of season four.
The choice to move to exploring just one case over five episodes instead of the traditional murder-of-the-week structure is a first for Duff, and in many respects, a first in general for televised programs. Duff admits that the choice is both unconventional but exciting, “It’s very different. It’s interesting to see the show continue its evolution and finding interesting things for our fantastic series regulars to do. We are very excited by the challenge.” It’s a bold move for a highly successful show with a devoted fan base to suddenly flip the switch part-way through a season, but Duff is confident that fans, whom he’s always shared a close connection with, will appreciate the creative liberty which he has taken. He notes that if it doesn’t sit well with them, “our audience will not be shy in telling me if I’m mistaken.”
The decision to structure the season this way came after TNT increased Major Crimes season four episode order by five episodes for a total of 23 episodes, the biggest season order of any TNT series to date. Duff explains that he and the writers had just finished laying out their plans for the original 18 episodes of the season when the additional five were ordered. Instead of changing what had already been put into motion with the first part of the season, they opted to use the opportunity to try something completely different.
Partially inspired by the success of past two-part episodes of the show with both the fans and the network, Duff shares that the increased episode order led him to take the traditional two-part episode formula a step further to push the boundaries of what television has been capable of before. “When we got the extra order for the final five episodes, I thought of this idea I had had before for a procedural pilot. Procedural pilots are very hard to sell right now, and I thought that I could take this story and weave it into the existing plot and it would turn out differently because there are different characters here. At the same time, I knew that it would fit the characters that we have already established and connected with, and that it would give a chance for Sanchez and for Sykes to run at their own issues.”
As Duff explains, much of the reasoning behind bringing Sykes to the center of the action in the winter arc has to do with the character of Sykes herself, and points out that as the newest member of the team, she was the most likely candidate to be willing to explore the mystery surrounding the new case in a way that would be unthinkable to anyone else on the squad. Duff also says he relished the chance to finally give Sykes her own fully realized storyline. “We’ve never been able to fully utilize Sykes in our previous seasons and the structure of these episodes finally allows us to do just that. Unlike most of the cast, she wasn’t part of the original The Closer crew so it’s been a slower ride up for her and I’m just thrilled to be able to show everybody what Kearran Giovanni can do. She’s got game, and Amy Sykes has game, and I think the audience has really grown to like Sykes and that they’ll really enjoy getting to see her in action.”
Sykes isn’t the only supporting member of the cast who takes a more prominent role in the unfolding episodes. Despite an intense crime unfolding in the foreground of the episodes, in the first of the five episodes alone there are no less five of the main characters of the show for whom things begin to shift dramatically as the case and episodes unfold.
The intensity of these episodes, along with the structure of the sustained arc, work together to also function as another storytelling device, and a new prism through which to view the characters. “It just gave us a lot of opportunity not to just tell a mystery, but also to delve deeper into our characters, and to see how our ensemble reacts in different circumstances. We saw how Flynn reacted to the various conflicts that took place during our winter episodes, and now we want to see how Sykes and Sanchez and Tao react to the conflict of these final episodes. Sanchez is still dealing with the issues related to his wife, and having someone else there who is relating to long-term grief issues as well. And, Tao in particular has a really epic scene in the second episode that I think will really shock people!”
In addition to the return of the squad, fans can look forward to the addition of a few new faces joining the winter season as well. Cheryl White appears as firearms technician “Firearms” Francine, who sets Sykes off on her unsanctioned attempt to get to the bottom of the case, while Julie Ann Emory portrays a detective with a very personal connection and perspective to the case. Jason Gedrick also features prominently as Mark Hickman, a disgraced former LAPD officer who finds himself with his foot right back in the case that ended his career years before, and left things very tense with his former partner, Mike Tao. Duff praises Gedrick for not worrying about tempering his performance to make his controversial character more palatable to viewers. “He did not try to make his character likable, and yet somehow or other there is something about the character, you see how wounded he is.”
Geddrick’s Hickman, as well as the gang-related case at the center of these episodes also serves as a tool for the writers to touch on the very relevant and very real issue of race and racial tension between civilians and police, but Duff maintains that his purpose as a storyteller is not to present these issues with bias, but merely present them as they are and allow his audience to judge them for themselves. “I’m ruthless about not politicizing issues or current events, that is not what I am trying to do with this show. What I am trying to do is be authentic and as unbiased as possible. I present issues that reflect our current events as they are and the facts clearly indicate that there are racial tensions between minority groups and the law enforcement community. I am not making that up, I am merely acknowledging it.”
Fans should expect a nail-biting conclusion to the first episode – and we use the term ‘conclusion’ in the very loosest sense of the word. Rather than having the drama and mystery wrapped up neatly as per Major Crimes’ traditional formula, the volume gets turned up even higher. Duff shares that this is the effect he and his writing team were hoping for. “Not only was this our intention, but we realized early on in the writing process that this was the best way to tell the story. It’s important to remember, this is not the kind of mystery that we normally tell. Normally, we limit ourselves to a mystery that can be told in one episode, and this one could not be done in that same way. When we were evaluating our writing strategy, we realized that you couldn’t even get the back story in one episode.”
Looking forward, Duff reveals that the writers are already hard at work crafting season five, which will premiere this summer. After the intensity of these final episodes of this season, it seems natural, and welcome, for Duff to have a more harmonious theme to open season five: balance. “We will be exploring how we balance our professional and personal lives, how we balance needs of adults and needs of children, how we balance our virtual world with the real world, and how we balance our fantasies of how things are going to be with the actualities.” In addition to finding balance in the lives of his characters, Duff jokes that he is also on a personal journey to finding balance with his cast and crew. “Balancing a cast this large is phenomenally difficult, and it makes me really, really appreciate Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey and those are even larger cast shows. It’s a very interesting process!”
Major Crimes winter season premieres tonight at 9pm/8c on TNT.