Due to technical issues, this review is listed as a D+. It is meant to be a B grade.
This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Hayden Childs, who’ll review the show week to week, and Meredith Blake talk about Prime Suspect.
Prime Suspect debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Hayden: It is impossible to talk about Prime Suspect without mentioning the original, the phenomenal British series about the difficulties and bitter triumphs of Detective Inspector Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren off and on for some 15 years. The original series (which, as I’m sure you know, is Britspeak for “season”) ran for two 100-minute episodes in 1991, in which we met Tennison and witnessed her struggle to be accepted as legitimate homicide police in face of institutional sexism. Many procedurals that followed Prime Suspect owed it a debt, especially the darker ones with tough-but-flawed female protagonists, such as The Closer. However, despite the debt, those were different shows. Tonight we have the debut of the Americanized version, a show that dares to use the same name and invite comparisons to the mostly unimpeachable original. In short, it has a lot to do to earn its name. Unfortunately, it is only about halfway there.
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Americanized versions of British shows generally run into large problems right away. Since British TV series are usually scoped to have longer episodes and fewer of them per season, the Americanized versions tend to cram a lot of information and recycled plot points into the first few episodes, after which they either learn to swim by themselves or drown like dogs. The Prime Suspect pilot does not break this mold, shoving major points from the 200-minutes of the original Prime Suspect series into its 45 minutes of running time. This adaptation, stuffed though it might be, is handled reasonably well, surprisingly. Maria Bello’s Jane Timoney, the American counterpart of Tennison, is believably angry and brittle. Her colleagues in the original were working-class Londoners, and the best available translation is likely obnoxious Staten Island guys. There are more signs of intelligence at work in the writing, which is promising for future episodes. Another positive sign is the presence of the creator of the original series, Lynda La Plante, as one of the many executive producers. The presence of Peter Berg, who executive-produces and directs the pilot, is a bit more concerning, because we don’t know if we’re getting Peter “Friday Night Lights” Berg or Peter “Battleship: The Movie” Berg. The presence of Alexandra Cunningham, who is best known for foisting more episodes of Desperate Housewives upon an unsuspecting public, cannot be a good sign.
Further problems arrive when the show flattens minor characters and scenes involving them in an attempt to hold the viewer’s hand. The opening scene, where Timoney gets frustrated with a cabbie and intimidates him into complying by holding up her badge and gun, seems frustratingly artificial. Also poorly handled is her boyfriend’s ex, who is so aggressively unlikable that one cannot see how they ever had a relationship in the first place. Timoney’s confrontation scene with her boyfriend’s ex and the ex’s boyfriend is such a fakey-fake cliché that moss actually sprouts on each word of her big speech while she is delivering it. The jokey banter among the sexist homicide cops at the crime scene has been done much better elsewhere and adds nothing to the characters. Their boy’s club meanness is a little surprising, too. It seems more 1991 than 2011 for any public servant to express nakedly sexist sentiments. As with the oh-so-tragic plight of other forms of modern bigotry, most of that stuff has gone into a far more subtle place. Let us not speak again of the hardened homicide police serenading the alpha-dog cop’s unseen plot-device child. Also bad are the music cues, which believe that the viewers of this show are not just blind but stupid.
Let’s go back to the upside, because, again, this show has promise if it plays its cards right. There is a choice moment of character development when Timoney visits her father, who is played by the great character actor Peter Gerety. Maria Bello is, as it turns out, a surprisingly decent choice to fill Helen Mirren’s shoes. Like Mirren, she has some good acting chops. Especially important to the character is her way of closing down her face into a just-perceptible grimace that can lead viewers to forget, if only for a second, that they are looking at a woman who is among the most gorgeous of our species. In both of the two cases in which she is involved this week, her creativity is also reasonably well-written and well-acted, even if well beyond the realm of allowable behavior for real murder police.
The challenge for Prime Suspect is to drop the easy cliches and focus on Timoney’s plight. Timoney’s victories need to be even harder-won. Her adversaries need to be likable and understandable and a little easier to distinguish from one other. Minor characters need to be rounder, and major characters need to avoid speaking their minds so much. In other words, Prime Suspect must honor its namesake by making Timoney a fallible, sometimes ugly mess who is also quite capable of doing her job, and by allowing the viewers to do more of the work of understanding her world. Good shows don’t bully the viewer into understanding them, and Prime Suspect needs to take its damn hands off of all of us and let us come to it. Here’s hoping to some realization of its promise in the upcoming weeks.
Meredith: As thrilled as I am to see a fully clothed, tough-talking, non-“adorkable” female lead on a network series—especially when that woman is played by the excellent Maria Bello—I’m a little worried about Prime Suspect. While I’m sure that female homicide detectives face plenty of sexism on the job, even in 2011, I felt that the aggressive chauvinism of the “beef trust” was over the top. Likewise, Detective Timoney’s male colleagues, with their “Noo Yawk” accents and names like Costello and Sweeney, were little more than dusty white ethnic stereotypes. But the real problem is that, without Bello, there’s little to distinguish Prime Suspect from Law & Order or any of a dozen other procedurals on television; you’ve seen one “townhouse murder with rape cluster,” you’ve seen them all. The writers are smart to make the tension between Timoney and her co-workers a central part of the show, but they need to be more nuanced about it—and please, for the love of God, get rid of that hat.