Prime Suspect: Why You Should Be Watching This TV Show

Meet the series that is single-handedly renewing my faith in network television.

Oct 19, 2011 at 4:15pm | Leave a comment

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The original Prime Suspect was a UK series starring Helen Mirren. If you and I are alike in our tastes at all, I probably had you at “Helen Mirren,” but please, continue reading.

It ran from 1991 to 1996, and then, after a gap, from 2003 through 2006, because the UK treats its television shows like worthwhile narrative media, and not like filler between commercials. This is not to say they don’t have misses over there -- boy howdy, do they -- but in general UK television tends to go about its business with the best intentions, if nothing else.

The same cannot be said for much of US television. I am not anti-TV in the least, I just want my televisual addictions to be of a certain quality, if not a certain budget, and what UK television lacks in big piles of money it makes up for in commitment to excellence. My opinion, anyway.

This is one reason why I am chronically annoyed by US remakes of British shows. The most egregious recent offender was "Life on Mars," an outstanding UK series starring the very pleasing-to-look-at John Simm as Sam Tyler, a police detective who may or may not have traveled back in time to 1973 Manchester, where he labors under the watchful eye and command of Philip Gleinster’s high-functioning sociopath Gene Hunt. The series was brilliant according to every definition of the word.

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But then, they made a US version, with the role of Gene Hunt being reimagined by Harvey Keitel (admittedly, if anyone else in the whole world could play this role, Keitel is the guy) and our time-traveling-or-possibly-comatose protagonist played by Jason O’Mara, who is presently busying himself by running away from dinosaurs in Terra Nova. It also co-starred Michael Imperioli, whom I know has had a long and illustrious career, but who will always be Christofuh from The Sopranos to me.

The problem wasn’t so much that the show was independently terrible. It was more an issue of having source material that set standards that were impossible to live up to. I’m sure some of y’all out there will be US-flavor "Life on Mars" apologists, and I respect your commitment to standing your ground. But for many of us who could compare the two, the American redux was a sad pretender to the greatness of the original.

Sometimes US remakes are simply inexplicable. Long-running British spy drama "Spooks" (known in the US as "MI-5," owing to specifically American racial associations with the original title) has apparently warranted the attentions of Hollywood and will also be remade in a US version. This is particularly confusing because this is a show about a British counter-terrorism unit within MI-5. It is an explicitly British show about British intelligence services. Also, didn’t we already have this series in the US? Wasn’t it called "24"?

All of this is to say that I usually have very low expectations when the US remakes a critically acclaimed UK series. So I was fully prepared to treat the US version of Prime Suspect, which premiered just last month, with the same sneering disdain I treat so many of these so-called adaptations.

I was wrong.

You heard me: I WAS WRONG. The US Prime Suspect is well-written, well-acted and astonishingly compelling. I’ll admit to a weakness for police procedurals, but I have not been so engrossed by an American cop show since the unforgivably underrated FX drama "The Shield" finally collapsed and expired. (This is the part where people start going BLASPHEMY!! WHAT ABOUT "THE WIRE"??? I have never managed to get into "The Wire," folks. I must be missing a Wire-loving chromosome everyone else has.)

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The first thing Prime Suspect has going for it is Maria Bello, who plays hard-bitch New York City detective Jane Timoney. Timoney is possibly the toughest lady I’ve ever seen on network TV, and Bello manages to play her as extraordinarily sharp and acerbic while still giving her a soul, and without reducing her to the stereotypical ice queen. The occasional interactions with her boyfriend Matt, played by Kenny Johnson, help with this too. There have been four episodes so far, and the only moment I’ve had yet in which my suspension of disbelief was strained was a scene in which Timoney blows off Matt’s grope-y advances in order to get to a murder.

No, Detective Timoney. You have kitchen sex with Kenny Johnson FIRST, and THEN you go to the crime scene. This is not real life. This is television. There are rules.

The original UK series of Prime Suspect focused heavily on sexism within the police force to create conflict for the female lead, and we still get some of that in the US version, mostly in the first episode, in which some scenes are downright uncomfortable to watch. Timoney is a match for it, though, and the male characters do all the crying so far, in a reversal I quite enjoy.

Timoney barely blinks even when a man shoots himself in the head in front of her. She is shocked for a moment, and then looks confusedly at the Blackberry in her hand, asking her boss, “Whose phone is this?” This is not a lady inclined to dwell on her failures, it seems.

Bello makes Timoney likeably unlikeable, if such a thing is possible -- as one of her colleagues says, “You have the worst personality of anyone I’ve ever met,” -- and the series frequently employs a bone-dry humor that is right up my alley, as when Timoney says of Matt’s irritating control freak of an ex-wife, “She talks like someone who’s never been hit in the face before.” I know many people find ANY humor based on violence to be incredibly unfunny, but I find these little asides utterly charming. I don’t believe Timoney would actually punch this woman -- at least not without a perfectly legitimate reason, anyway.

Also, she wears this hat. OK, I have a crush.

I find Timoney to be a fascinating character because this is easily a role that could have been written for a male actor -- there is an enormous amount of depth to her, and a self-assurance and a powerful competence that female characters in network television rarely get to exhibit, at least not without also having moments in which these primary traits culturally encoded as “masculine” are balanced out by a softer side, or moments of tenderness or nuturing. 

It’s OK for women to be portayed as capable and strong; these attributes don’t have to threaten their womanly qualities, begging for some kind of overt reminder that the character in question has ovaries in her gut. I don’t want to see Timoney get moon-eyed over a baby, nor do I want to see her sobbing in a bathroom stall, not because these are shameful things to do, but because we see television women doing them all the time, and it’s wonderful to see a woman behaving in a way that does not pander to the cliches.

"Prime Suspect" is on Thursdays at 10pm EST on NBC, but you can also watch full episodes online on the NBC website. Do it. If it helps, I’ll even promise to give "The Wire" another shot. Again.