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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Prime Suspect: “Ain’t No Sunshine”/“Stuck In The Middle With You”

Illustration for article titled Prime Suspect: “Ain’t No Sunshine”/“Stuck In The Middle With You”

We come not to praise Prime Suspect but to bury it. Actually, NBC already buried it, burning off the last two episodes opposite the NFL playoffs. So maybe we should praise it a little. As we have long maintained here at the AV Club, it was not a show that ever reached excellence, but it had heart. Sometimes the plot mechanics were too obvious or the writing too anonymous, but it kept plugging away, striving for its niche. It was better than the myriad Law & Order spinoffs and other acronymic cop shows. It was not up to the heights of the original Prime Suspect, nor Justified, nor The Wire, but one of the reasons that those shows carry such water is that they had a rare combination of luck, talent, and network support. The U.S. Prime Suspect had to attempt to please an audience that the great procedurals of the last decade could largely ignore. Even its best episode were beset by moment of flailing for the bottom that would be unimaginable on shows that were not trying to please a fickle broadcast network audience. It is hard to know who is responsible for Prime Suspect never quite finding its footing, but it is easy to suspect some combination of NBC suits and, possibly, show re-developer and executive producer Alexandra Cunningham, whose prior production credits were Desperate Housewives and Fastlane. While it might well be unjust to throw suspicion on Ms. Cunningham, it is also true that the other producers include Lynda La Plante, who created and wrote the original Prime Suspect, Peter Berg, who created and produced Friday Night Lights, and John MacNamara, who created Profit. All of those shows were able to find their unique voice, which can at least partially be attributed to their ability to combine compelling characters with dramatic multi-episode arcs. Unlike those shows, the U.S. Prime Suspect took a long time to develop the supporting characters and never settled into any sort of larger sense of drama. Given the confines of the case-of-the-week procedural, it is a testament to the strengths of the cast and crew that Prime Suspect was as good as it was.

But I am still burying the show that I meant to praise, at least a little. It deserves praise because by the end, it managed to give each member of the cast a clearly defined and, to varying degree, compelling personalities, and it made the final scene, where Jane Timoney accepts an invitation from her squad to be human for a minute and join them for a drink, a somewhat meaningful event. The meaning, however, was undercut because the premise, where everyone on her squad hated her, went out the window after the pilot. In fact, unlike the original Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison with her oceans of emotional reserve, Jane Timoney has been written to be quippy and often kind, and Bello’s chemistry with the other characters hardly makes her seem like a reserved ice queen who always refuses to come to happy hour. Even her little frenemy relationship with Duffy has been couched in terms of respect since roughly the third or fourth episode. None of this was really a problem for the show, other than the fact that the showrunners seemed unwilling to give up their conception of Timoney as an outsider.

It could have been more than it was, though. As a viewer and a critic, I wanted it to get to the next level. I wanted it to minimize the character study side and to turn the cases-of-the-week into a greater dramatic arc. I didn’t want to see silly stuff like serial killers, but I did want it to bring all of this talent to bear on a story worth telling. Some of these cases-of-the-week have moments of emotional heft, but they are too transitory to make casual viewers into dedicated ones. The show needed long-term consequences and an arc that works as a metaphor for something larger.

The first of the final two episodes, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” tells the story of two investigations that have a minor parallel in their conclusion. In the first, Reg and Luisito work the case of a 15-year-old girl found in a garbage shoot. It is clear from the first moment they clap eyes on the guy that a gang tough is responsible, but the story is muddled when a boy who lives with the tough, the younger brother of the guy’s roommate, confesses. In the second story, Jane and Augie work the case of a woman found dead of a gunshot in her bathroom. While they initially suspect her younger, good-looking, and unemployed husband, it turns out to be a random killing by a child playing with a found gun. Some astute viewers might notice that they stole this plotline from an episode of Homicide: Life On The Streets. One of the dramatic aspects of this episode was Duffy feeling sorry for telling Jane’s boyfriend about her earlier affair with Costello. As we shall see, though, by the next episode this will be water under the bridge. The other great emotional scene involved the boy who confessed to murdering the girl being confronted by his older brother, who, as it turns out, was her boyfriend. Both break down in tears, the older brother telling the younger that he cannot believe that the boy would hurt her because she was so kind to him. Of course, the boy was only an accessory, and it was his feelings of guilt that led him to confess.

The final episode borrows liberally from The Wire. Not only are we treated to appearances by Andre “Bubbles” Royo and Chris “Frank Sobatka” Bauer, the episode is set into motion in the same way as the first episode of The Wire: with the murder of a witness. The squad quickly uncovers that Royo’s character is attempting to knock out all of the witnesses against him, including Reg. This leads to a 24-hour watch on Duffy by members of his squad, which is annoying to everyone involved. The confusing thing is how quickly it is defused in the end. It seems that it should be harder to shut down the killer than that, but what do I know? There is a B-plot (or is it a C-plot?) where Augie gets a child molester to confess, which seems to exist mainly because there is not enough Augie in the rest of the episode. It is a testament to the strength of the cast that I did not even mind Jane’s domestic scene. Peter Gerety’s blarney accent was dialed back, the kid was allowed to act like a kid, and the scene was both sweet and short. I do wish that they had done more with Royo and Bauer, but there’s only so much that a one-hour procedural can do with its guest stars.

And then we get back to the end, with Jane joining her teammates for a celebratory drink after work. As I pointed out above, it was not a cathartic scene because the show abandoned the premise of Timoney as an outcast long ago. It was meaningful on a meta-level, though. By the end, the cast of Prime Suspect was a well-oiled machine that put movie star Maria Bello on near-equal footing with the character actors who made up her supporting cast. Way back at the beginning of the Prime Suspect coverage, I pointed out that this show needed to embrace its humanity by being weirder and more open to plumbing the depths of its cast. It may never have found its larger dramatic purpose, but it did find a way to be weird and big enough for its cast. It wasn’t the greatest show, but it was good enough, and it had a lot of heart.