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.
In fact, the best thing about Prime Suspect is the density of it all, how we get beneath Jane Tennison’s (Helen Mirren) skin to experience her desperation, her despair, and her desires. There is never a moment where the character goes unexplored, where the scribes or directors put her on autopilot to cruise through another whodunit. Mirren is exceptional, constantly finding ways to broaden the woman’s walking wounded view between various levels of malaise. Some cause her to be curt and abrupt. At other times, she’s as fragile as a pressed flower. Because of her own natural beauty and fetching physical attributes, Mirren can make Tennison into anything she wants: stern authority figure, bitter victim, stalwart survivor. Even better, the show know how to bring out the best in the actress. Even when cast in a wholly unflattering light, we never lose her innate strength.