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'Prime Suspect: The Final Act,' Sunday and Nov. 19 on PBS

Hal Boedeker
The Orlando Sentinel

Farewells often trip up iconic television characters. Not Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren). This complex heroine receives a stellar sendoff in "Prime Suspect: The Final Act."

This engrossing miniseries puts Tennison through crises, forces her to defend life choices and allows her to sum up her career. Detective Superintendent Tennison of Scotland Yard also struggles to solve a final case, the murder of a 14-year-old girl.

The mystery, however, matters less than being in Tennison's electric presence one last time. The miniseries airs from 9 to 11 EST tonight and Nov. 19 on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."

The chief draw, of course, is Mirren, who wraps up a peerless performance. Since "Prime Suspect" debuted on PBS in 1992, the actress has played Tennison with a bracing mix of smarts, cynicism and grit. The actress also portrayed Tennison's blunders unflinchingly, which heightened the program's realism.

This time out, writer Frank Deasy provides more personal insights into Tennison. She reluctantly wrestles with her excessive drinking and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

She says goodbye to her dying father, Arnold (Frank Finlay). They understand one another, finally, in wrenching scenes that are tenderly acted.

This pioneering policewoman, who fought sexual discrimination, looks toward retirement - or, as she says, being put "out to grass." Her male boss, speaking to an underling, is pessimistic.

"Old school, that's Tennison," he says. "On the force, what, 30, 35 years? Battered, burned-out. Dinosaurs. What do they do when they leave? They drag themselves to death."

Mirren is equally adept at the haggard and the hopeful. She portrays loneliness and desperation without going mawkish. She reveals more vulnerability when Tennison reaches out to surprising sources of support.

Will the shaking, forgetful detective pull herself together? Will she drive when she shouldn't? The actress makes you feel for Tennison.

The script gives Mirren many choice moments. She excels in a drunk scene, set in a pub, that is audacious and mortifying. In the key scene, Tennison remains clear-eyed about herself.

"I've had a good run," she says. "Dozens of convictions. Three commendations: two for bravery, one for excellence. More than most."

Even then, Tennison retains her biting humor. "Don't call me ma'am," she tells a colleague. "I'm not the bloody queen," a witty reference to Mirren's role as Elizabeth II in "The Queen."

Director Philip Martin tells this story forcefully. The musical score pounds. The edgy cinematography accentuates London's seedy dangers. The violence shocks. The first half ends with a devastating cliffhanger.

Unsettling revelations surface about the young murder victim. Tennison strains in interrogations to solve the sordid crime. In a shrewd stroke, the filmmakers basically let viewers figure out who did it before addled Tennison does.

No matter. Tenacious Tennison remains riveting. The previous six installments form a TV landmark. Their cumulative power buttresses "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," a strong candidate for program of the year.

The indispensable Mirren is bloody brilliant once more. You won't see Tennison's like again.

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PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT

Cast: Helen Mirren, Stephen Tompkinson, Laura Greenwood, Gary Lewis, Frank Finlay.

Where and when: PBS presents the two-part "Masterpiece Theatre" from 9 to 11 EST Nov. 12 and Nov. 19.

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