With so many programs in the blossoming 2011-2012 season already based on outside sources, it comes as no surprise that a 10 PM Thursday slot on NBC is home yet to another one. Prime Suspect joins the ranks of Homeland (Israeli TV), Revenge (The Count of Monte Cristo), Boss (King Lear), and Free Agents (British TV), among others that we probably don't even know about yet, in being based on a precursor, in this case the beloved British procedural staring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison, facing sexist fellow officers, guarded and undermining politicians, and impatient lovers as she tries to solve crimes and rise in the organization. The brainchild of actress-turned-writer Lynda La Plante, the original Prime Suspect began in 1991 and went for seven seasons in the form of peroidic mini-series. The point of the title is that above all else the series was about Tennison trying to penetrate the smokescreens sent up by the number one target of her investigations. The series was much like the Martin Beck book series by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and equally realistic about the effect of criminal hunting on the practitioners of that increasingly technologized art.
Though sponsored by Ms La Plante, according to the credits, the focus on a prime suspect is one of the many things that the American version has dropped, at least on the basis of one episode, aired on Thursday, September 22, 2011. Prime Suspect is not a remake but a re-think, as developed by Alexandra Cunningham, formerly of Desperate Housewives. Instead the show has picked up a few bits of other programs. Jane Timoney, as she is here known, is trying to quit smoking, and chooses to do so via addiction unburdening chewing gum, like Sofie Gråbøl's Sarah Lund in the (superior) Danish version of The Killing. And a fourth act chase sequence looks cribbed from The French Connection. Fortunately, this chase scene is fully integrated into the narrative and says something about Timoney's character and advances the plot, rather than being mere filler as in most commercial break cliffhangers. Unfortunately, Prime Suspect goes in for those overhead shots of Manhattan looking straight down as if from the underbelly of a chopper. What do the networks do? Cull these from some fund of three or four dozen shot three decades ago? They all look the same.
Prime Suspect starts out strong – but then, most crime show pilots tend to do so, as the producers put everything they have in them in order to gain a foothold on the schedule. Southland commenced equally strongly way back when but within a few weeks after the pilot the show began to tread water (though I hear that the recently completed season was good). Treading water is the biggest sin of network television, which is an outrage because given only some 40 minutes a week to tell a tale, for the writers to process filler into the mix is a betrayal of the viewer. The plot of the opening episode very vaguely quotes from the original mini-series showing Timoney trying to get onto a high profile case from which she has been passed over unfairly, and progresses in its character delineation with no fat to speak of.
Anyway, Prime Suspect started out pretty good the other night, and the show is worth watching to see how well it develops in the various directions it has established. Much of its success so far goes to lead Maria Bello, taking a break from movies (The Cooler) to try her hand at episodic television. As a recently promoted New York City homicide detective, she is cranky, harsh, and highly selective on whom she chooses to bestow her compassion. She absorbs the arrows of her colleagues openly sexist or competitive scorn without reaction and only allows herself to show her real emotions in private, like Tennison, or with her boyfriend (The Shield's Kenny Johnson, AKA "Lemonhead"). In fact, the tone of Ms Bello's Timoney is more like Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) on USA's In Plain Sight, but without the hilarious wisecracks. Like her, Timoney is acerbic, impatient, and unlikely to couch her disdain in politic purrings. She only matches Tennison in her sometimes crude misread of when and how to advance herself. So far, she is a fun character to watch, but the show around her is weak and predictable.