Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

There is something very odd about Close to Home, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CBS legal drama about midwestern prosecutor and new mother Annabeth Chase. Just what gives it its singular feel is hard to pin down; at first I attributed it to the fact that it displays some of the same kind of postfeminist incoherence on view in recent films such as The Stepford Wives and Down with Love. Later I began to notice how consistently the series seemed to match Kathleen Stewart’s description of contemporary US culture in terms of a formulation she designates as “trauma time.” For Stewart, “trauma time is a haunted peripheral vision that demands hypervigilance” and “community and the public are entities that come into existence in the face of risk or at the precise moment that crime and criminal elements become visible as surrounding presences.”1

Close to Home, which consistently wins its Friday night timeslot, is described by CBS as tearing away “the façade of suburbia to reveal that sometimes quiet and tranquil streets can hide the darkest of crimes.” While perpetuating a trend in recent series television toward new acknowledgements of the simulation of community (despite the geographical specificity in its rendering of Indianapolis, this is just as ersatz a locale as Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, or Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane) it also invests its sense of place with ominous tones generally atypical of female-centered dramas. Thus, the flag draped over a white picket fence to close the credit sequence bespeaks standard-issue patriotic familialism but the sequence also includes an aerial view apocalyptic sky reminiscent of the urgency of SUV ads.

Similarly conflicted is the series’ portrayal of prosecutor Annabeth Chase which participates in a broad representational trend toward the depiction of motherhood as the all-purpose site of female subjectivity. Yet it twists this formula by suggesting that Annabeth’s motherhood constitutes a workplace asset and renders her uniquely perceptive about/sensitive to the dilemmas of suburban female experience. Newly returned to work after the birth of her daughter, Annabeth’s prosecutorial interventions are carried out in the name of an idealized female maternity.

Yet Annabeth’s return to the workplace is initially complicated by her distress at having lost out on a promotion because she won’t work the long extra hours required. Close to Home accepts rather readily that Annabeth must pay a penalty for her two month maternity leave and relishes the prospect of conflict between Annabeth and her new boss Maureen, a single woman who acknowledges that she’s “made this job [her] family.” Close to Home thus initially exhibited a postfeminist propensity for setting women in conflict with each other and a studied avoidance of systemic/institutional critique. Although it has backtracked lately on its representation of female workplace competitiveness, the series continues to stress Annabeth’s role in focusing our judgment on a variety of women who abuse their sexuality, spurn their family commitments or neglect to honor the series’ highest value, motherhood. Since its inception Close to Home has attracted an unusual level of attention by critics who consistently read it as a barometer of shifting cultural norms around women and work. Writing in The New York Times,
Ginia Bellafante recently noted that while Annabeth is a “careerist permitted full access to all of her womanly inclinations,” she also “would seem to be the one working mother in the country exempt from the double shift.”2

One of the series’ most interesting features is its contingent and provisional conceptualization of neighborliness, communal safety and cohesion. When in the pilot an abused wife and mother reveals that her husband kept the family hostage in their home for two years one of Annabeth’s colleagues skeptically responds, “In this neighborhood? I don’t think so.” But here and henceforth it becomes clear that there is indeed a crisis of social neglect within suburbia. In keeping with the series’ anxious juxtaposition of Annabeth’s idealized family life with the proximate criminal “outside,” shots of the imprisoned family’s burning home are intercut with warm scenes of Annabeth bathing her daughter at home on a neighboring street. Through strategies such as these Close to Home vividly enacts a televisual equivalent of the aporia that characterizes many domestic cinematic narratives which exhibit a “nostalgia for an untainted sense of belonging” while “the impossibility of achieving that is also the catalyst for fantasies about recuperation and healing.”3

Twin Towers

Twin Towers

Accordingly, Close to Home rigorously schools its viewers in the belief that happy domestic scenes (except those set in Annabeth’s own household) are deceptive. Annabeth and her colleagues face case after case of domestic disorder and her job continually requires her to prove in court the falsity behind apparently happy family lives. Since its broadcast premiere in autumn, the series has featured plotlines including:

• an outraged wife killing her husband when he decides to end their marriage despite her
accommodation to his desire for sex with multiple partners;
• a neighborhood prostitution ring comprised of unfulfilled housewives
revealed to be doing its networking through the local school system;
• a surgeon killing his wife at the point when she is about to bring to light his dependency on prescription drugs. The surgeon pins the crime on a young black man his wife had been mentoring, telling Annabeth and her team that his wife “was never very good with boundaries and she was always bringing her work home with her.”

All of these crimes take place, it is suggested, in close proximity to Annabeth’s home, producing the effect of a simultaneous romanticization and excoriation of suburbia across the series. At home where Annabeth typically retreats after the jury brings in another verdict in her favor, her husband is always available for reassuring and congratulatory conversations and the couple’s home and infant daughter are viewed in lambent scenes of contentment. It seems clear that Close to Home needs a traumatic context in order to stage the pleasures of domestic felicity. At the same time, its intense aesthetic overvaluation of family and domesticity make these scenes of Annabeth’s home life seem dreamy and unreal. Unwittingly or not, this new female-centered legal drama reveals how deeply any formulation of “family values” is dependent on its others.

1 “Trauma Time: A Still Life,” in Histories of the Future. eds. Daniel Rosenberg & Susan Harding, Durham: Duke U P, 2005, pps. 333 and 337 respectively.
2 “The Crime-Fighting Working Mom,” The New York Times Dec. 15, 2005, p. B1.
3 Elisabeth Bronfen, Home in Hollywood: The Imaginary Geography of Cinema. New York: Columbia U P, 2004, p. 21.

Close To Home

Image credits:

1. The Cast of Close to Home

2. Twin Towers

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