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Why You Should Be Giving Prime Suspect a Chance

Yesterday, NBC ordered six more scripts of Prime Suspect, a slightly surprising development: Prime Suspect has not been doing well among viewers, and while critics haven’t savaged it, they haven’t been paying it much mind. Still, NBC doesn’t have many options, and after canceling The Playboy Club, it already has one drama-size hole in its lineup. So based on a technicality, it seems that Prime Suspect will live on, at least in the short term. This news is heartwarming to the show’s small audience, the fedora lobby, the “Helen Mirren is overrated club” (membership: zero), and me. I love Prime Suspect.

Who knows exactly why NBC chose to remake Prime Suspect instead of starting fresh with a gritty cop show about a badass female detective that didn’t come with the burden of a beloved name. It’s not as if this is such an outlandish premise for a series — it worked well enough for TNT when they made The Closer. NBC’s Prime Suspect is not much like the original version at all beyond its basic premise, and if there's any use in comparing the two it's for the same reason people liken any new boxing movie to Rocky: Even the most predictable and age-old beats can still provide pleasure if done right. Yes, you've seen a guy (or a robot) almost get knocked out in a ring dozens of times — that doesn't mean it's any less of a delight when he somehow survives and punches back.

Maria Bello's Jane Timoney is a brawler, and the show's chief satisfaction is watching her brawl. Take the very last scene of the pilot. Jane is out to dinner with her boyfriend Matt, his ex-wife, and her new boyfriend to discuss custody of Matt's son. The ex-wife has spent all episode being impossible, refusing to let her son visit Matt until his building's garbage chute has been locked shut and so on. Matt, a little aggravated, leaves the table to get a drink. Jane, snapping crab legs and doing nothing to hide the black eye she got on the job, proceeds to baldly blackmail the ex-wife and her new beau into splitting custody by reminding them of the burglary and drunk-driving charges they have between them. She then launches into a speech about the difficulties of her job that ends with “I’m also not a divorce lawyer, but I knooow about going to court. So what day is Owen coming to our house?” It's all fairly predictable, but joyfully bravado-laden and the perfect climax of comeuppance. As the jaunty music kicks up on the soundtrack, and the ex-wife says, “Thursday,” only people who hate the part of the movie where the hero wins could do anything other than smile. It's a knockout.

Unlike many procedurals, in which "character" just means "strange affliction that makes this tremendously attractive person a tortured genius" (ability to always discern the truth, never forget anything, etc.), Prime Suspect actually has characters. In 1991, the original Helen Mirren version focused on her character's battles with the Metropolitan police's rampant sexism; some critics assailed the pilot of the 2011 version for surrounding Bello with similarly misogynistic cops and not taking into account that such behavior isn't currently condoned by the NYPD in the same way. The producers said they would redress this in future episodes, and they have, making Jane and her colleagues into people, not positions. Prime Suspect is still fundamentally about being a woman on the police force, but in more nuanced ways than it was initially, when being a woman meant you were hated by your colleagues, beaten up by perps, and could really connect with children. (Women, always the child whisperers.)

The third episode introduced a female robbery detective who, thanks to a bit of flirting and friendliness, is beloved by her male colleagues. Sure, the woman toes a sexual line in a way that horrifies Jane, but she doesn't cross it. There's more than one way to be a woman in the police department. If Jane's male colleagues can't always stand her, it's because she's a cranky co-worker with a chip on her shoulder who endlessly gives them a hard time, noxious traits that are independent of her having two X chromosomes. By making Jane singularly difficult, the men that surround her have become singular as well. In the episodes following the pilot, her nemesis (Mildred Pierce's Brían F. O'Byrne) has been shown to be a good cop, not some lazy cardboard cutout; his increasingly jocular beef with Jane is clearly personal, but not exactly sexist. Jane gets along better with her other colleagues — their repartée easily makes Prime Suspect funnier than Whitney. But even they are constantly alluding to a fact that is abundantly clear to the viewer: She's a real pain in the ass.

But a lovable one: In last week's episode, Jane is fairly convinced a seemingly mild-mannered husband is actually an abusive wife killer. She goes to his house to give him an update on the case, and he steers the conversation in an interesting way:


"Is it unusual for a woman to be a homicide detective?"
"Um, Not for me."
"Do you have kids?"
"Nope."
"Why not?"
"Busy, I guess. Lucky."
"Maybe you haven’t met the right guy yet."
"Who would that be, you think?"
"Oh, I don't know, I don’t know you."
"No, you don’t, I'm a real catch."

This is a great scene. First, there's Bello's outfit: The hat, the high-water pants. She even wears clothes like an athlete, all showboat. Then, there's her tone of voice when she says "Lucky," like luck has absolutely nothing to do with it, thank goodness. But it's also perfectly plotted: At the end of the episode, Jane gets the guy to confess by telling him his wife was pregnant when he killed her (she wasn't; Jane borrowed some sonograms), a play she must have thought up based on this strange conversation where the guy tipped off his interest in progeny, a chat he never would have had with a man: She's a smart one, this Jane Timoney. She may only be around for a little while longer. Why don't you give her a chance?