Prime Suspect is struggling in the ratings. NBC is doing the best it can to get people to watch, airing reruns on Mondays this month (i.e., tonight) in place of the canceled Playboy Club as well as its usual Thursday time period. Below is my recent review/conversion-experience piece. Make a deal with you: Start watching the show and I’ll stop pestering you about it, ‘K?
Having seen the pilot, I wrote in a September “What To Watch” section of EW: “Sometimes a lot of talent (in this case, star Maria Bello; producer-director Peter Berg; writer Alexandra Cunningham) miscalculates the appeal of its own show. That seems to be the case here.” Ooof. That’s pretty snotty, isn’t it? I should not have written in that tone. However, and after getting in a sharp elbow about Bello’s character’s ever-clamped porkpie hat, I did conclude: “But I’ll keep watching and I hope it improves.”
At least I was true to my word: I have been watching, and I’m here to publicly apologize to Bello, Berg, and Cunningham and say I was wrong: Prime Suspect is a very good show, it has improved since that debut, and it deserves a full-season commitment from NBC to continue to prove to skeptics like me and other viewers who just haven’t had the chance to tune in to see the way Suspect becomes more engrossing with each new episode.
Immediately after Prime Suspect’s pilot presented Bello’s Jane Timony as the tough-but-put-upon brilliant detective/victim of workplace harassment, the series settled in to a different tone. Steadily, Jane is winning over the guys in her police squad room, not by dialing back her abrasiveness but by demonstrating that her manner and the thinking behind it gets cases closed. In other words, she makes being an SOB work for her out there in the world, if not among her clannish tribe of badge-bearers.
The series’ second episode, “Carnivorous Sheep,” was especially strong and suggested how PS could evolve if it survives. It took a standard TV-procedural plot – a missing little girl; a pedophile suspect – and rescued it from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit melodrama, not by reversing our expectations (by current TV logic, if a pedophile is introduced early in the hour, he’ll never end up the true predator at the show’s conclusion), but by shifting the focus to center almost entirely on the accused man, whose life has been ruined simply by the fact of Timony and her colleagues’ investigation of him. The climax of the show is not the discovery and rescue of the girl, but the suicidal despair of the man falsely accused of the kidnapping crime.
PS has a superb cast that includes Brian O’Byrne, Kenny Johnson, Kirk Acevedo, and the welcome introduction of the always excellent Peter Gerety as Jane’s bar-owner father. Bello’s Jane is as hard-boiled as any cop you’ll find on TV, in the movies, or in a detective novel. The series has a tart, vinegary tone that’s energizing. At this point, it’s hard to imagine why Prime Suspect even needed to use the Lynda LaPlante-created, Helen Mirren-starring Brit series as its starting point, since what did it get the American show? It’s not as though PBS viewers with long memories are going to tune in hoping to re-live some old glory, and it just made many of us skeptical about the concept from the start.
Judging a show based on its pilot is always a dicey proposition. (It’s yet another reason why critics probably shouldn’t review a series on the basis of one episode, but that’s the subject for another piece – the way the pressure to showcase the “New Fall Season!” forces writers and editors to over-hype or under-serve shows based on what little they’ve been shown.) All I can say is that I’m now trying to make amends for my initially dim view of Prime Suspect, and hope you’ll give the show another shot. Soon.