The struggle of the minority within the majority has always had the makings of explosive, high intensity drama. For every stride forward, for every small victory won by the tenacity and faith of the disenfranchised comes a power play by those possessing same, resulting in the kind of baffling back and forth and eventual controlled chaos that leads to war, revolution, or in the smaller areas of everyday society, the various “of the” battles (sexes, classes, etc.).
For Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, being one of only a select few female officers to work for the Metropolitan Police Division/Scotland Yard is fraught with enough professional pitfalls, what with bigoted, chauvinist co-workers around every corner and bad guys (and gals) running through the streets. As played by Oscar/Emmy Award winning actress Helen Mirren in the absolutely brilliant Prime Suspect series, our hardnosed heroine manages to make matters all the more difficult by adding her own simmering inner demons and curt personality to an already overflowing mix of backstabbing, bluster, and collisions with that infamous glass ceiling.
Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection
(US DVD: 7 Sep 2010)
Conceived by formidable UK dramatist Lynda La Plante and positioned to play both with and against the archetypes within the standard dramatic police procedural, Prime Suspect succeeds for numerous reasons. It’s well scripted, expertly acted, plotted with one eye on the engaging elements of the mystery thriller and the other on a classy concurrent character study, and never once employs the false formulas of the typical TV cop show to win over the viewer. Instead, this is a show that settles in for the long haul, that has no problem taking one particular crime through several sensational episodes.
Within the grind of DCI Tennison’s travails are subtexts involving feministic reach, paternalistic blowback, age, duty, and further along the line, the everyday ills and sicknesses smothering a pre-millennial England. Prime Suspect is one of the rare showcases to discuss issues like institutional racism, pedophilia, white slavery, abortion, and addiction, all within a drive to continually redefine and repurpose the stereotypical roles relied upon by the medium. So we get crass co-workers like DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell), equally ambitious minority members of the force like Tennison’s ‘lover’ Detective Sergeant Bob Oswalde (Colin Salmon), and the numerous invested members of the old boys’ network who would just like to see the independent harpy simply go away.
Structured within a single storyline for most of its run (though Series Four did break with said strategy to offer up three distinct crimes) Prime Suspect is more than just good vs. evil, a lady lost among as bunch of ball-breaking and scratching lads. It’s a search for some manner of greater truth, of trying to understand how a life dedicated to protecting the people from the outlaw and the villainous can be less of a fight than the war going on for your very sense of self. Tennison is not your typical bra burning activist. Instead, she’s as much a part of the problem as the solution. Often unable to see her missteps and mistakes, she resorts to the bottle to get her through issues that perhaps require more soul searching than Scotch.
Even better, by offering said interpersonal rollercoaster within a world where precision and intuition are crucial, the complexity grows combustible. Like another masterpiece of post-modern British TV—Jimmy McGovern’s flawless Robbie Coltrane vehicle, Cracker—what happens at home is clearly reflective of what’s happening in the field, and visa-versa. Tennison may seem to balk at such a suggestion, believing she can keep both sides of her existence in check. As clashes continue and fifths disappear, her ability to stay centered goes further and further askew, as does her police work.
Series One sets the tone for such a brazen back and forth as Tennison finds herself trying to apprehend the killer of a local London prostitute. The dead girl’s client list is potentially explosive, and she soon finds herself maneuvering between the obstinate element within her own division, her ongoing relationship with boyfriend Peter (a terrific Tom Wilkinson) and the eventual “suspect” himself, a sinister slippery eel named George Marlow. As those sworn to aid her work to undermine her investigation and the criminal himself trades on Tennison’s assumed “weaker sex” stance, we witness the birth of genius, a show that plumbs the depths of dark human despair both within the police tape and far outside of it.
Similarly, Series Two steps up the rhetoric by avoiding more of the gender equality angle to focus on another major early-‘90s issue in England: race. A body is found buried behind a house in a heavily populated Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, and while the white members of the force focus on their usual collection of calculated suspects, Tennison decides to have her “black stud” boy toy Oswalde step in to simmer down the brewing culture clash. He is angry that she supposedly sees him as nothing but an ethnicity, but he also loves that fact that she stands up for her own marginal position. Eventually, their hidden affair causes the case to implode. Of course, with enemies all around, it is up to Tennison to reboot and refocus, using prejudice as a symptom, not the root of this particular case.
Showing Tennison as her own meshing of free spirit and free falling mess, Mirren makes these initial installments mandatory viewing. Her aging facade, a combination of clear allure and crow’s feet keep us from falling into the tendency taken by many like-minded entertainments. Indeed, instead of making us pity this poor woman who is constantly being judged and diminished because of her chromosomes, Mirren mines the source for every ounce of defiance and dignity she can. Even when Tennison is clearly screwing up, alienating colleagues, misreading clues, and following up questionable leads, we can always see the bigger picture in her downtrodden demeanor.
In the ‘70s, a character like this would be sexed up or made more vulnerable in order to argue for her true place among the homemaker provenance. Now, nearly three decades later, Tennison is the superwoman shown her own internal brand of bumbling kryptonite.
Even when she runs from the ridiculous glad handing of the old school tie tenets of her job, she manages to ‘outman’ all others around her. Series Three sees the dejected detective moving over to the vice squad and head long into a case involving underage male prostitutes (known as “rent boys” in the lingo). One such lad is found burned to death, and soon Tennison is dealing with a transvestite singer (Peter Capaldi), a beloved businessman named Edward Parker-Jones (Ciarán Hinds), and the very top of her own police ranks.
To make matter worse, an old nemesis in the persona of Detective Bill Otley returns, seemingly ready to countermand everything Tennison hopes to achieve. As the conspiracy grows wider, elevating itself beyond the body at hand, our shrew lead sees a chance to getting back at all who thwarted her progress professionally.