NBC’s Prime Suspect is yet another US remake of a UK television show, which makes you expect that it’s going to be absolutely dreadful, since the US seems to have some issues with translation. For this reason alone, I largely ignored its existence for the first few weeks, until Lesley Kinzel wrote about the show to urge people to start watching. Then I had a Prime Suspect marathon and watched all the season’s episodes in a single night, and spent the next week waiting impatiently for another installment.
Set in New York City, it could easily fall into the trap of being yet another gritty, hard-bitten detective drama. US audiences appear to be clamouring for that kind of thing, with multiple shows set in New York airing at any given time, and it takes a lot to make a show stand out from the crowd at this point. Castle has accomplished it with quirkiness, and Prime Suspect approaches the problem with good writing, great acting, and strong dramatic chops.
It follows the case of the week format hallowed by crime dramas large and small, with more complex plots running over the course of the season. This a common tactic with crime shows, which want to give people something to tune in for every week while allowing new viewers to drop in without being disoriented. It’s incredibly easy for the narrative to turn formulaic and stale when it’s restricted with this kind of storytelling, but the writers have managed to keep things fresh as they play with the balance of the personal and work lives of the characters.
Prime Suspect very much fits into the hard-boiled detective genre, but it’s been updated for modern audiences. It retains the characteristics that make this genre so fantastic: terse characters, slouchy hats, stepping outside the boundaries of the law on occasion to get things done, and innovative thinking. It’s also discarded the characteristics that don’t work as well, including dialing down the sexism and creating a mixed team of detectives rather than a uniformly white and chiseled group. Fewer dames, more teamwork, but not in a mushy and unbelievable way. Prime Suspect retains rivalries and internal politics and complexity, without belittling any of the characters.
At the centre of the action, Detective Jane Timoney (Maria Bello) is salty, crispy, and delicious. She has a dry wit that steps outside the casual snark that sometimes seems to pass for humour these days and inhabits a whole new realm; she’s wry and sly and funny in a very understated way. It’s not just that the writers give her great lines, but that Bello delivers them superbly. She’s a master of quiet humour, allowing lines to slip past rather than making a point out of them. Sometimes I’m halfway through a scene before I start snorting about something she said at the beginning.
As a female detective in a male-dominated team, she deals with sexism, but the show has managed to avoid turning this into an object lesson or polemic for viewers. She regularly complains, for example, about having assignments poached from her by the male members of the team, and isn’t afraid to take a heavy hand when it’s her turn to be in charge, a reminder that she is not to be messed with. This isn’t just depicted as a reaction to sexism, though, but as part of her personality; it’s just the way she is.
The other characters constantly describe her as extremely unlikable and unpleasant, but as a viewer, these traits are kind of endearing. She’s snappy and harsh, with a low tolerance for bullshit, and it works for her. A one dimensional trap of tough facade with nothing behind it can be tough to avoid, but they seem to be managing it with her character, who displays some balance and complexity.
Prime Suspect also explores the interplays of race, class, and gender when it comes not just to working on the police force, but also to determining which cases get investigated, and how the force handles them. This, too, could easily slip into moralising, which it briefly did in ‘Regrets, I’ve Had A Few,’ but for the most part the depiction is balanced and accurate. For viewers who maybe haven’t been exposed to the race, class, and gender disparities in criminal investigation, these revelations might feel less moralising and more eye-opening, highlighting the injustices in the ‘justice system.’
Timoney’s personal life also gets screen time, whether we’re in her father’s bar or watching her negotiate the details of her home life and deal with her boyfriend’s child from another relationship. The realities of shared custody were an important theme in early episodes and I hope the show doesn’t drop that as it moves forward, because it added greatly to her character and Prime Suspect as a whole. The attempt at giving characters some kind of actual home life, and showing them outside specifically law enforcement settings, is a step up from many detective dramas, where it seems like people spring fully-formed from inside their desks when it’s time for their shifts, and we never see them at home.
And, sadly, despite its promise, Prime Suspect appears headed for cancellation, without a renewal on next season’s schedule. Production has also been halted, which is a strong indicator NBC won’t be bringing it back. Poor numbers may have been a cause, as the show didn’t have much time to grow a strong audience. Catch episodes, and Timoney’s fantastic fedora, while you can.