Friday, January 3, 2014

Short Take: Prime Suspect, Season 1

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first season of the British TV series Prime Suspect is an absorbing, gritty police procedural. Helen Mirren stars as Jane Tennison, a Detective Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard. The homicide division in the station where she is assigned is exclusively male, and she feels sexual discrimination has kept her, despite her experience, from heading a murder investigation. That changes when the male DCI in charge of homicide dies from a heart attack. He had just opened an investigation into the rape, torture, and murder of a prostitute, and Tennison takes over from him. The transition is anything but smooth. Investigative errors result in the main suspect’s release. The homicide officers resent Tennison’s taking over, and one of them goes out of his way to sabotage her. She’s determined to excel in her new position, which creates stress in her relationships with her live-in boyfriend (Tom Wilkinson) and her family. The case turns out to be much bigger than anyone thought. The murder wasn’t isolated; it’s the most recent work of a serial killer who’s struck all over England. Lynda La Plante’s teleplay is a solid crime story, but the serial as a whole is far from perfect. Some subplots are poorly worked out, and Christopher Menaul’s directing is mediocre. A thriller's pacing should be a little snappier. But Mirren’s forceful, no-nonsense performance as Tennison keeps things compelling throughout. It’s a fine showcase for her. The series’ historical importance also makes it worthwhile. The Tennison character is the model for probably every female police detective on series TV since. The season initially aired in Britain in April 1991. It was first shown to U. S. audiences as part of the PBS anthology series Mystery! in January and February of 1992.

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