'Prime Suspect' Manages to Dash All High Expectations

Lesley Smith

With the cards so loaded against Jane as a woman, she quickly becomes a caricature, a throwback to the strident Ms. dreamed up by men in the '70s and '80s.

Prime Suspect

Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Maria Bello, Aidan Quinn, Kirk Acevedo, Brian F. OíByrne, Peter Gerety, Tim Griffin, Damon Gupton, Kenny Johnson
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Director: Peter Berg
Air date: 2011-09-22

NBC bills its new police drama, Prime Suspect, as "based on the critically acclaimed British series of the same name," For crime show fans, this might bode well. The fact that its stars Maria Bello and is produced and directed by Peter Berg also sounds good: maybe, at last, the network has a must-see show.

But in less than an hour, Prime Suspect manages to dash all expectations. Parts of the show seem archaic, more Life on Mars than life in a 21st century police department. Other parts seem careless bricolage, beginning with Jane Timoney (Bello) who brings together the least appealing aspects of Brenda Lee Johnson (The Closer) and Mary Shannon (In Plain Sight). How could this promising genealogy go so badly wrong?

The show's first mistake is lifting unmodified the prejudice against a woman boss cop from the nearly 20-year-old original. Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison faced a police force notorious for its sexism and racism, and she had little institutional recourse. Today, Jane should have legal options, and a few friends on the force. Even if individuals in the supervisory chain are reluctant to act, they're pressured as well by imminent publicity problems: none of that changed environment is visible in this premiere episode.

In adopting this major storyline without any adjustments, Prime Suspect misses an opportunity to address the contemporary workplace. Instead, we see the familiar spectacle of a tight-knit group of colleagues intent on destroying an interloper. No one who has endured a workplace where one clique dominates, whether that clique is male or not, would fail to sympathize with the essence of the 21st century Jane's experience. It's just a pity that the clique is all male, as it allows viewers, and Jane, to dismiss its actions as atavistic sexism rather than to consider them as manifestations of personal and economic insecurities in a brutally competitive environment.

With the cards so loaded against Jane as a woman, she quickly becomes a caricature, a throwback to the strident Ms. dreamed up by men in the '70s and '80s, who could only see in liberated women their own worst characteristics intensified. Furthermore, the premiere episode provides Jane with no chance to be anything but reactive in interactions with her male colleagues, and no context to be anything but smug about her work. Her competence is predictably the object of scorn by undifferentiated colleagues, all alike in their language, actions, and beliefs.

The guys are also uniformly incompetent. In the original Prime Suspect, Tennison broke investigations apart through subtle, lateral thinking, and sometimes, but only sometimes, through sheer gritted determination. In the NBC version, Jane's colleagues are so short-sighted and inept that she simply has to apply basic policing tactics -- questioning assumptions, linking obviously related sets of data, and knocking on doors and questioning people -- to solve the crime.

The solution to the so-called mystery at the heart of the first episode is so simple that adept crime-show watchers will have worked it out long before any of the team struggles near to an answer. Prime Suspect demonstrates, again, how today's cop shows have forgotten, in their rush for a gimmicky hook -- such as a beleaguered woman, an adept liar -- that a without a genuine conundrum that needs to be solved, the rest of the show is just so much window dressing.

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