Prime Suspect: Series Premiere

By August 31, 2011TV Reviews

Defying Sexism One Suspect at a Time

There’s something about Maria. When NBC decided to remake the British miniseries Prime Suspect, which starred the legendary Helen Mirren, they wanted to put a new flare on the rough, tough, and defiant homicide detective Jane Tennison. This time around, they’ve changed her name to Timoney and cast Maria Bello, who’s known for her ability to balance both strength and grace. Timoney will battle sexism within her own workforce and the New York City criminal world, prevailing and proving that yes; a woman can be a cop. Or this looks like the plan, at least. With slick, gravel voiced male detectives, guns cocking in a cacophony of crime fighting and the tilted fedora Jane wears to all of her interrogations, how could an audience not eat this show up with a silver spoon? They may be satiated too soon for NBC to find success, however, if Prime Suspect can’t keep it’s characters interesting and it’s procedural episodes as hot as every other crime drama on cable.

I must give the first episode credit. We’re introduced to all our main characters, see a flash of both their strengths and weaknesses and a prime suspect is apprehended and a case is solved. Something happens. Even better, Jane Timoney makes it all happen. She’s just been transferred to the NYPD homicidal department and the men are already giving her crap. The rampant rumor is that she’s slept her way to the top. They don’t respect her, and they want her out. But when the leader on the latest rape and murder case has a heart attack and passes away (pretty convenient), Jane (all too easily) is made head detective. Now, she must both gain respect from the men on her team and take the case to a new angle in order to solve it. Jane continually surprises her bitter colleagues and manages to triumphantly catch the prime suspect (I won’t give too much away, let’s just say it’s not easy to watch a woman get beaten to a pulp on a street corner.) 

Maria Bello accepted the role, knowing she had large shoes to fill. Mirren won a handful of BAFTA and Emmy’s for her Jane, but Bello clearly has made the character her own. Critics and viewers alike are worried that the tough lady cop has been done before on other crime dramas, not only on the initial British series. Showrunner Amy Cunningham told critics, "I'm lucky enough to have the source material that a lot of those people were copying from," "Jane Tennison: strong, rude, selfish… All these things that make a great character, but I also have Maria to do a brand-new version of it. It's great to have such fantastic source material as a skeleton that I can rely on no matter what." It’s true, these days everything is a version of something we’ve seen before. But rarely does a remake soar.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Psycho? And God knows Footloose will be awful.

Producers are hoping to use both a procedural structure as well as focus more on individual characters for “B” stories that will last more than one episode. This would satisfy both viewers hungry for juicy, suspenseful homicides and those for character development. The problem lies in the fact that none of the characters are interesting. Yes, Jane is a dimensional woman and we see she can be a fighter and lover, a story line with her husband’s son coming to stay with them is promising, but everyone else is a stereotype. The men are all sexist, gum-chewing bafoons and drink scotch from silly glasses. If the show plans to make any of their personal lives a part of the arc of the show, I wish them luck. If a character doesn’t hook you immediately, it’s rare that they ever will.

In the end, you can’t do it alone. And it looks like the team behind Prime Suspect put all their eggs in one basket, the basket being Bello. There’s no doubt that she can keep the female protagonist vivacious, but without any help from her friends on the NYPD force and the writers behind the show, it will fall flat.