It is vision that distinguishes great dramas from the merely good ones. Prime Suspect continues to improve, but it is still a far cry from a great drama. It has been unable to shake off some of the cheesier elements and lock in an overarching vision. It has always had promise, and while it has fulfilled some of that promise, the show needs unified direction, mostly likely in the form of a multi-episode narrative arc, to raise its stakes and become a drama worthy of the cast. With this week’s news that NBC has ordered more episodes, it may become that great show. For the time being, however, over its four episodes it has found a place as a better-than-average procedural with an excellent cast. The last two episodes have featured writing that vacillates between merely adequate and stellar, and it is the stellar moments, along with the way that the cast realizes them, that make the show worth watching.
This week’s episode was the best one yet despite the presence of the one-note ex-wife. The show opens with Jane Timoney taking her gun out of her home safe and then loading it and chambering a bullet. The show cuts then to her boyfriend’s son playing on the floor of their apartment. I get that Timoney is a cop and fully capable of controlling her weapon, but I don’t really get the narrative strategy of having a loaded gun in proximity to a child when the juxtaposition has nothing to do with the story. All that aside, the point of this scene is that the boyfriend, whose name I’ve forgotten, has to get into work early, and Timoney is going to have to handle the psycho ex-wife picking up the kid. The ex-wife spends her scene passive-aggressively trying to convince Timoney not to attend the kid’s upcoming birthday. She remains an attitude, not a character.
The case-of-the-week involves the murder of a stockbroker named Tony who seems to be universally beloved. His wife is played by Joelle Carter, known to Justified fans as Ava Crowder. Most of the best scenes this week are between Carter and Bello. Timoney immediately decides that the wife has most likely hired someone to shoot Tony. It is to the show’s credit that she is completely wrong. However, no one appears to have a motive to kill the guy. He owes money to Russian mobsters and, even more terrifying, the Wall Street firm where he worked, but neither appears to care. Despite his money problems, they just liked him. Almost all of the narrative tension in this story involves the detectives hitting brick wall after brick wall.
But this show is not about the story, but about the scenes. The standouts include the scene where Timoney confronts the wife at the department store where she works, and not just because Maria Bello takes off her top to try on a shirt. Joelle Carter plays Ava Crowder as a woman who does not often make the best decisions to protect herself, to put it mildly, and this character is a variation on that theme. Instead of working with Timoney to catch the killer and exonerate herself, she is understandably angry at Timoney when she susses out that Timoney believes her to be a suspect. She is angry for other reasons, too, but they are not apparent until the excellent penultimate scene, where Timoney drops by to tell her that they have caught the killer.
No prior episode has put Timoney in the situation of being friendly with other women, and it was a missing element. At the beginning, when Timoney is bitching about the ex-wife to the hypnotist who is helping her to quit smoking, she seemed more human. Her interactions with Carter, while confrontational through most of the episode, also had an interesting angle in that Carter’s character appears to be friendless. Her big scene at the end could easily have played false, but considering that the one person who the show establishes as a family friend is the same guy who propositions her with her husband less than three days dead, it is clear that she has nobody to talk to. She was attracted to the deceased because he was fun and had friends everywhere, and she didn’t care that he was a philanderer because she loved his connection to life that much. It is a nice touch that the show can make this woman’s big speech a believable result of her social isolation.
There were other good scenes, too. The witness who agrees to be hypnotized was a highlight, as was the scene with the dishwasher who jumps from a third-story window and breaks his leg. Her interactions with the rest of the squad continue to improve, and the other detectives are becoming easier to tell apart with consistent personalities of their own. I like the detectives’ reactions to their plan of tracking the killer through the GPS in his phone, even though the phone is turned off. The prickish Detective Augie is appalled and frightened that the NYPD is able to track the guy this way, while the generally more sympathetic Detective Calderon says, “It gives me wood.” That’s a nice reversal of the attitudes we would expect from these men, and it humanizes them. All of these indications of the show’s improvement makes its need to create an overarching theme even more apparent, and I hope that it does so soon.
- Apologies for the lateness. I had technical difficulties that cut out my broadcast after 20 minutes, so I had to wait until morning to watch the episode.
- It seems strange to me that more people watch Prime Suspect than either Community or Parks And Recreation, at least as of last week’s ratings. I know that this isn’t true of The A.V. Club commenters, but it is true of general TV viewers. I don’t mean to insult Prime Suspect. However, while both Community and Parks And Recreation have had their ups and downs this season, they are both masterful shows. Even being the most promising show in its time slot, Prime Suspect has awkward problems and promos that make it seem like every other generic procedural. And yet it draws more viewers. Weird, right?
- The elements that need to be dropped immediately: the obnoxious, bloozy music cues and the blabby radio announcements that add nothing to the story.
- I don’t care a whit about whether Maria Bello wears a fedora, but it is very important to some viewers. If you are indeed one of those viewers, be advised that she continues to sport the hat.