Prime Suspect UK
As NBC rolls out its Maria Bello fronted US remake of this venerable British television institution, so we find the original UK series re-released on DVD. With every possible incarnation of Law & Order short of Law & Order: Outer Space (expect a pilot for fall 2012) currently up and running, it is only natural that a network whose bread and butter is procedurals should look to other shores for inspiration. Yet this represents something of a curious gamble as the original Prime Suspect, while gripping, grubby, and ostensibly dark for it’s day, it was deeply anachronistic – rooted as it was in themes of institutional sexism, corruption, and post-Thatcher politics – and now appears shockingly dated.
In what transpired to be her breakout performance, Helen Mirren stars as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, one of only a handful of high-ranking female police officers who suddenly finds herself heading up a high profile murder enquiry – much to the derision of her male colleagues and underlings – after her predecessor (a hero amongst his own) croaks of a heart attack. While the rank and file go ape shit (“a bird? Pfft”) the brass, pressured from upon high to back her, view this as a win-win; if Tennison succeeds then they look good for backing her, and if she fails they have ammunition to argue why she should never have been in charge to begin with.
Littered with before-they-were-famous cameos; Tom Wilkinson in a thankless role as Tennison’s nagging husband, Tom Bell as a boorish, misogynist Sgt., and Lord Voldermort himself in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a victim’s boyfriend, the series made much hay with the banality of crunching data in the analogue era. Canvasing neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and a heavy reliance on old-fashioned eyewitness testimony that in the post-CSI age seem difficult to imagine. At one point a major breakthrough pertaining to a suspect’s identity is announced with genuine astonishment: “He was in the bloody computer! Can you believe that?”
In keeping with the time everyone drinks like a divorcee at Christmas and smokes at a rate that would make the cast of Mad Men cough their collective lungs up. But at the crux of Prime Suspect, as with most procedurals from the late eighties and early nineties is the subject of murder back when the gruesome subject was still shocking and something of a voyeuristic voyage for the viewer shrouded as it was in a veil of dark mystery. These days the world has moved on.
Simply put, in the age of the Internet and twenty-four-hour cable news, when the explicit details of every violent crime have become fodder for talking heads and the bloggosphere, the subtle, psychological minutia that Prime Suspect and its ilk traded on carries no weight anymore. With figures the likes of Casey Anthony, Conrad Murray, and Joran Van Der Sloot dissected piece-by-piece, night after night, before our very eyes, Prime Suspect – while infinitely more noble in intention – just comes off as oddly quaint by comparison.