Last week’s episode was about the promise of Prime Suspect. This one delivers with a bit more nuance and some powerful performances, but there’s still something missing that is keeping it from being a great cop show: the sense of risk. It is probably too much to ask for a show to find its groove within two episodes. Most take more. But if Prime Suspect is to find its own identity, it must be unafraid to alienate viewers. Let me amend that statement right off the bat: If Prime Suspect is to find its own identity, which would appeal to critics, it must be unafraid to alienate and possibly lose viewers. Right now, it is a mediocre cop show with a killer list of guest stars and some real potential. It is also playing too conventional with some of its elements, and the riskier, weirder elements seem disconnected from the rest of the story.
We open with two of the most boring and conventional story aspects: Timoney’s ongoing effort to quit smoking and her boyfriend’s ongoing effort to bring his little boy home for a sleepover. It seems likely that the showrunners keep these elements in an attempt to round Timoney out, but neither of these storylines is realistic enough to humanize her or idiosyncratic enough to mythologize her, and so neither adds much to her story. We get it. She has a life outside of her job, even though she is, in some ways, married to her job. This is true of just about every cop on every cop show going back to the invention of the procedural.
Luckily, the homicide of the week calls. Timoney’s nemesis Duffy, played by Bryan O’Byrne, is on point for the case, but besides the dead lady there is a missing three-year-old, so the whole squad has been called in. My colleague Meredith will not be happy to learn that Timoney is still sporting the fedora. The detectives remain quippy at the scene of the crime and somber elsewhere in the episode. This remains a weird tic of the writing staff, who seem to have borrowed the quippiness from a different show. The writing staff also borrows the concept of homicide detectives being callous in front of the bereaved from Homicide: Life On The Streets, although here we are denied the great character moment of Lieutenant Giardello explaining to a furious Robin Williams how working homicide is just a job for the detectives. Instead, the father of the missing girl expresses an emotion that is either outrage or indigestion or it might be something else, and then we are moving on.
Another conventional problem with the show is that Timoney is the only good detective in her squad. She uses spatial reasoning to identify a convicted child molester named Chris Hughes as a suspect. Hughes is played by David Meunier, best known to fans of Justified as Johnny Crowder. Hughes has an alibi, though, in the form of his girlfriend Noelle Tanner, played by Paula Malcomson, who has ably filled many roles but to me will always be Trixie from Deadwood. In one of the great scenes of this episode, Timoney is interviewing Tanner when she realizes that Hughes has not been forthcoming about his past. She is still deciding whether to spill the story when Tanner’s young daughter appears. That scene has richness that momentarily points to the kind of show that Prime Suspect could become.
While Duffy fixates on Hughes, Timoney decides that she doesn’t like him for the murderer. This is two weeks in a row that the whole squad goes along with Duffy’s obsession with the wrong person while Timoney goes out and solves the case. First, she visits an artist played by Dante Basco, who voiced Zuko on Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is, incidentally, my main TV Club Classic gig. Basco tells her to find a guy named Glenn. Before she finds the obviously guilty Glenn with his run-down apartment and creepy demeanor, though, the show gives us another scene of confrontation with Timoney’s boyfriend’s truly unlikeable ex. Timoney can still play this lady like a string, though, and the show does not need to keep harping on how awesome Timoney is. Then we have a return of the sex crimes cop from last week, who remains a dick. Duffy’s phallic-American tendencies get the best of him, too, and he goes over to Tanner’s apartment to read to her from her boyfriend’s arrest report. Well, the show wants us to think that Duffy is a dick for doing so, but the fact is that in any realistic situation, a woman with an 8-year-old daughter should be aware that her boyfriend spent time in jail and rehab for molesting a child of the same age.
This is actually the most interesting part of the show. Hughes was wrong to lie to his girlfriend about his past, but Duffy was also wrong to read to Tanner from presumably non-public records. It is true that some sex offenders get a raw deal in this country, and it is also true that some sex offenders can be rehabilitated. The show, however, plays on the rush to judgment to exonerate Hughes to some degree, and that seems unfair, too. Anyway, for some reason, Duffy sends a lone detective to arrest Hughes, who rabbits at the prospect of being wrongfully arrested. In the meantime, Timoney solves the case by finding Glenn, who might as well be wearing a shirt that says “Ask Me How I Murdered A Lady And Stole Her 3-Year-Old,” and single-handedly rescues the little girl. Hughes winds up back at Tanner’s house in a hostage situation. Timoney asks to be allowed to talk with him alone and witnesses a first-rate soliloquy from David Meunier before Hughes shoots himself. That scene was great, but it is poorly integrated with the rest of the show. And why did her boss let Timoney go in alone? That made no sense.
However, the role of the witness might be a better use of Timoney, because Bello plays her as an empathetic person. The makers of this show must back off of this conceit that she is the only good detective in New York, and they need to do something a little more interesting with her personal life if we are to care about it. One of the strengths of Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison was that she was a deeply flawed person. Her personal life was a disaster, but it was an lonely and interesting disaster. She was a good detective, but she didn’t solve every case by herself. In short, she was realistic in a gritty and compelling way, not in the dull sense of bitchy overprotective exes and smoking habits, and she was competent without being a one-woman police force. Timoney is too good when she’s good and too boring when she’s boring. I gave last week’s episode a B based on its promise, but this one does not improve enough to maintain that B. Prime Suspect needs to work harder to be worthy of its name.